(For the month of October 2011 I’ve decided (and the other writers have agreed) to make this a horror film review month. There will be at least a minimum of one review of a horror film posted every day until we reach Halloween. Since I did force the idea upon everyone I think I should start things off with a classic horror film in from the last ten years.)
For decades the zombie film genre has always been dominated by the rules set down by the grandfather of the modern “zombie story”. George A. Romero’s landmark horror film Night of the Living Dead from 1968 had taken what had been a gothic-style monster taken from the voodoo folklore of Haiti and the Caribbean and added to that an apocalyptic re-imagining which still resonates with film and horror fans alike to this very day.
There had been attempts to deviate from the rules set by Romero’s films. The most successful one had been the horror-comedy franchise Return of the Living Dead, but even that one didn’t have the legs to last. It wasn’t until 2002 when British indie filmmaker Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland collaborated on the one film which would help revive the zombie film genre and, at the same, create a schism within it’s rabid fan-base. The film I speak of is 28 Days Later.
Boyle’s attempt at horror begins with some well-meaning, but misguided animal activists breaking into a British animal research facility in an attempt to document animal cruelty and to rescue the animals being tested on. Right from the get-go we see that things are not what they seem to be as we witness research chimps bound to chairs and forced to watch unending scenes of violence. It’s from this opening that we see the origins of what will be the Rage virus which will sweep across all of Great Britain. It’s a well-done opening sequence which sets plants the seeds of the film’s rules. We learn more about the Rage virus as the film goes on, but from this opening we learn that the virus is infected through the blood of one already infected and that exposure is always 100% and fast.
The film quickly cuts from the first day of exposure from the first animal activist to a scene of the film’s lead in Jim (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) waking up from his month-long coma (hinted at to be 28 days) and finding the hospital that he had been admitted to empty of people with evidence that something violent had occurred to empty out the place. He ventures out into the city streets only to see that the empty hospital’s current state is not unique to the place but to all of London itself. This sequence with Jim wandering the empty and garbage-strewn streets on London has gone down as one of the iconic scenes in horror film history. Like Jim, we’re witnessing the utter silent horror of an empty London with papers and debris fluttering in the breeze. We street corners with desperate missives and flyers of people asking for information about missing loved ones. helping with Jim and our own growing sense of dread and horror is the excellent film score by John Murphy and use of GY!BE’s apocalyptic track “East Hastings” (a full version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings”) which just added to the film’s apocalyptic tone.
It doesn’t take long for Jim to encounter the very thing which has empty London and the country of it’s people when he attempts to find refuge in a church. What usually is a place of refuge and salvation has become a place of horror as Jim must run for his life as Rage-infected individuals chase him through the streets of London before he’s rescue from a couple of survivors. The film gives more clues as to the extent of the epidemic from these pair of survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), and explaining to Jim the new rules of this new world.
Jim and his new companions will meet up with more survivors in the form of a father and daughter team (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) as they move from one refuge to another while trying to avoid the Rage-infected. Through this journey we see the group lose people and encounter survivors of a military blockade who have been sending radio transmissions to anyone that they have found the cure to the “infection”. It’s this “cure” which ends up becoming the main focus of the film’s story in the second-half of the film which also marks the film’s descent into “enemy within” territory as the enemy outside batters at the gates.
Boyle does a great job of working with Garland’s screenplay not just in paying homage to past zombie films, but also adding his own ideas to the genre in the form of the Rage-infected themselves. Zombies since Night of the Living Dead have always been of the slower, shambling at times, but not overly energetic variety. They may stumble forward when fresh meat is in view thus giving a sense of speed and momentum, but overall they’re easily avoidable in small numbers. It’s in their relentless, unending pursuit and horde-like numbers which gives them their horrific advantage. Boyle and Garland throws all that away and creates a new breed. People who act like zombies, but are not walking corpses, and whose Rage-infected metabolism have granted them the ability to chase after their prey and do so in as fast a manner as possible. It’s this game-changer which has split the zombie genre community in two with some decrying this change with others accepting it as a fresh change of pace.
28 Days Later is actually a film which takes Romero’s first three zombie films and condenses the themes and ideas from the first three Romero Living Dead films and explores them efficiently in one film. We see scenes of rampant consumerism as Jim and his group of survivors happen upon an abandoned local shopping mart and shop to their heart’s content. This scene is reminiscent of a similar montage from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as survivors in the mall “shop” once they’ve secured the place. The film also has within a siege and the dangers posed by other human survivors towards others and their inability to work together for the common good which were major themes in both Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and, especially Day of the Dead (with its civilians versus military dynamics). It’s this theme which really drives the film in the second half and finally cements it’s foot in being one of the great “zombie” films in the genre.
The film also has some of Danny Boyle’s indie filmmaker fingerprints in addition to the horror of the story. Some of the visuals work in both conveying the horror of the current situation to Jim (and to the audience as we see everything for the first time when Jim does) to the beauty of the countryside as nature slowly begins to take back what man had taken. There’s a scene with the group driving down the English countryside with them in the background and the foreground a field full of flowers shot and made to look like an impressionistic painting. Of course, we can’t forget the scenes of London empty which wasn’t just wonderfully shot and framed, but also make’s one wonder how a film made on a low-budget (somewhere around 8-9 million dollars at that time) could afford to empty out all of London and do so in daytime.
28 Days Later still could’ve just made its way on the strength of Boyle’s direction, Garland’s writing and Murphy’s score, but the cast of relatively unknown (at the time) actors, Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris leading the bunch, were game enough to keep stride for stride with the rest of the film’s creative crew. Cillian Murphy does a great job as the everyman who the audiences will see as their avatar in the film while Harris blows away the stereotypical damsel-in-distress in most horror films. She actually joins a long line of strong female roles in other classic zombie films who don’t wait around for the men to save her, but who can handle herself when things get rough and bloody. The work of these newcomers plus those of veteran British actors Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston (as Major Henry West, leader of the military blockade who has the cure for infection) just shows that just because it’s a horror film doesn’t mean the acting has to be horrific.
It’s almost ten years since this film was first released and to say that it still holds up would be an understatement. It’s a horror film which has heart in addition to the the primal impulses which usually drives entries in the zombie film genre. It’s a testament to Danny Boyle as a filmmaker that he’s able to inject new life to what had become a subgenre in horror which had stagnated when it came to new ideas. it’s all because of 28 Days Later and it’s success with critics and the general public (not to mention becoming one of the most successful low-budget films ever) that the zombie genre earned a new resurgence in the entertainment landscape. Zombie films soon began to multiply (most of them awful, but always with several entries which would join this film in classic territory) and it also introduced young film fans to the classic films in the subgenre and to the one who created it all.
The film’s success didn’t just reinvigorate the subgenre but also push some of it’s cast and crew to new heights of fame. In five years a sequel, 28 Weeks Later, would come out with talk from Boyle himself that he’s interested in making it a complete trilogy with 28 Months Later.