Director: Danny Boyle (UK). Year of Release: 2002
A bank of televisions, all showing footage of civil unrest, riots, and heavy-handed policing. The camera pans back to show a monkey being forced, A Clockwork Orange-style, to watch all these violent images. Pan back a bit more, and we’re in a lab full of simians. Animal rights activists have broken in to release them. A passing man in a white coat tells the activists – too late – that the monkeys have been injected with Rage, and are dangerous to anyone who comes close.
Twenty-Eight Days Later…
A man wakes up, naked, in a hospital bed. He takes the tubes out of his arm, and finds some bandaging to wrap around himself. Dressed in swabs, he wanders out into the streets of Touristy London. They are deserted, apart from a red bus, turned on its side. He calls out for attention – which is not a good idea, as the streets are full of The Infected, with whom contact is fatal. The man, Jim, is rescued by a couple who are hiding out behind the barrier of a confectionery store.
All zombie films need rules, and we are quickly and efficiently explained which ones are at play here. We’re not dealing with slow, lumbering zombies, but with agile people who hunt in packs and could outrun you. Infection comes not just through bites, but from getting any zombie blood in your own bloodstream. Pay attention here, this information might prove useful later. If you do have to travel, it’s best to do it in groups and in daylight,
The group wanders aimlessly around London. Jim wants to find his parents, which he does, dead in their bed in his childhood home. They then see lights from a flat in a high-rise block. This is where Jim and Selena find Frank and his daughter Hannah. In the lack of anything better to do, they all decide to make their way in Frank’s taxi towards Manchester, from which Frank’s battery radio is picking up transmissions from an army units promising some sort of safety.
From what I remember, when 28 Days Later was released, twenty years ago, it didn’t carry much expectation. Sure, director Danny Boyle had quietly impressed his audience with Shallow Grave, then wowed it with Trainspotting, but his first two great films had been followed by two relative duds in A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. He’d also dropped screenwriter John Hodge, who’d been responsible for much of Boyle’s early success.
Instead, 28 Days Later was written by Alex Garland, who had also written the disappointing The Beach, and is no John Hodge. The actors were mainly unknown. Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris were at the beginning of their careers, and even the slightly better known Christopher Ecclestone and Brendan Gleeson hadn’t really broken outside the UK. The budget of $8 million gave Boyle some room to manoeuvre that maybe wasn’t there directly after the release of Trainspotting.
Looking back now, the most obvious thing to mention (which is why I’m going to mention it) is the unanticipated parallels with the plague that has hit the world in the last couple of years. And yet the clearest parallels with Covid are not the expected repercussions – the plague in 28 Years later is much more deadly than even Covid – but the sense of helplessness and ennui that it engenders. Imminent wipeout makes people not so much cling onto life as to not see the point in trying.
We see the start of a possible relationship between Jim and Selena. They are both likeable and fairly good looking young people, and are literally almost the last person on Earth for each other. But romance has become banal in the face of impending catastrophe. Rather than wanting to continue to propagate the species, their instincts are more towards not wanting to bring a child into a world like this. This neatly subverts some of the clichés of End of the World dramas.
But I think the film’s neatest trick is to completely reverse the standard plotline of the Seventh Cavalry charging over the horizon to save the day. For two-thirds of the film, our heroes try to make their way towards the radio signal which has been emitted by an army battalion in the vain hope that the troops will save them. When they get there, they find a group of sex-starved squaddies, who provide little salvation, especially to the 2 females, one of whom is under age.
This leads to an ending which is messy, but reflects the reality of modern warfare. Rather than just having a shootout between the goodies and the baddies, Jim, Selena and Hannah find that the people who are supposed to be defending them are possibly more dangerous that The Infected outside the perimeter fence. Cue some chaotic scenes of different groups of armed people rushing through a stately home, wilfully shooting at each other.
28 Days Later is maybe too nihilistic. Its adherence to film standards and an eye on a possible sequel (which came 5 years later with a different director and cast) means that we don’t come to the only logical ending of the end of humanity – in Britain at least. The rest of the world has quarantined the island until the disease (and all inhabitants) have died out. But there is a strong sense of Original Sin, and of no way to get round the fact that human beings are bastards.
So, not a date movie, no deep political analysis, but if you take it for what it is – a zombie movie which is slightly less dumb than the competition. That’s perfectly serviceable to me.