Hello all! In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d jump ahead on my review list again and cover a zombie flick! And not just any zombie flick, a good, scary and even poignant thriller known as 28 Days Later! Not only is this movie a cult favorite, its also a films that got in on the ground floor of this new zombie craze.
Yes, for some reason, zombie movies have been pretty popular in the new millennium. Maybe it’s a retro thing, but it seems that within the last ten years, there have been a plethora of writers/directors who have breathed new life into this old movie genre. After 28 Days was released in 2002, it was followed by the Resident Evil movie, House of the Dead in 2003 (another video game adaptation), the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead, Doom (2005), Slither (2006), The Zombie Diaries, I Am Omega (2007), I Am Legend, Day of the Dead (2008, another remake), followed by Quarantine, Zombieland in 2009, and the list goes on. In fact, I’m not even taking the time to mention all the sequels and lesser known titles that came between these ones!
The point is, whereas in previous decades, people could expect a low-budget zombie movie at least once a year, since 2000, there have been multiple entries every year, sometimes as many as a dozen! And with this explosion in titles, there’s been some variety to how zombies were presented as well. Whereas in the old zombie classics, zombies were slow witted and slow moving – literally the walking dead – in new movies and re-imaginings, zombies were fast moving and sometimes highly intelligent. In fact, there’s even a neat table over at Yahoo movies that places zombie films within the context of these two criteria:
If one were to use that table to discuss this movie, the zombies would be placed on the high end of both speed and intelligence, making them VERY dangerous. And, as I will mention soon enough, their take on the creatures was also quite realistic, at least when compared to other franchises. Okay, get comfortable and be ready to get scared, its horror movie time!
Compared to most horror films, 28 Days had a relatively fair budget of about 5 million pounds or 7 million US$ (based on the 2002 rate of exchange). It’s overall gross, however, was over 82.7 million dollars, and it even spawned a graphic novel and a sequel (haven’t seen or read them yet, but working on it ;)). In addition, the movie was the result of collaboration between writer Alex Garland and esteemed British director Daniel Boyle, whose film credits include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Sunshine,Slumdog Millionaire and The Beach (which Garland also wrote).
The film was also well received by audiences and critics, earning itself several awards for direction, cinematography and acting in both Europe and the US in the process. It was even placed on two top 100 and one top 20 list as one of the best horror movies of all time. In addition to its direction and acting, critics praised it for its story, allegory and humanistic elements. In short, the movie went in with a modest budget and limited fanfare, but came out a cult hit and a commercial success. Little wonder why its seen as one of the best movies of the genre, people love underdogs as much as they do hidden gems!
28 Days Later essentially begins with an act of activism, where some well-meaning animal rights people storm into an animal testing facility and try to free some chimpanzees who are undergoing weird tests. In the course of the break-in, one of the doctors tries to stop them, saying that the chimps are infected with “rage”. This opening kind of seemed hokey to me at first, but afterward I came to see how effective it was. We get a brief prologue that tells us how things began, but which doesn’t weight us down with long-winded or unlikely explanations.
This is always a challenge in zombie movies, explaining how and why the dead are up and walking. In this case, they chose to go with a virus that was like super-rabies, making the infected extremely violent and spreading through the exchange of bodily fluids. Kind of brilliant if you think about it, explains all the zombie-like behavior while still being somewhat plausible. Of course, they are basically saying that animal rights activists will be responsible for the apocalypse, but who cares? It’s fiction!
We then cut to a hospital where the main character – a bike courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy*) – wakes up from a coma and realizes he’s all alone (for some reason, we get a full-frontal shot of his junk here too!) He then gets up and begins to look for answers and food, finding only abandoned buildings and empty streets. After making his way out into central London, he quickly realizes something terrible must have happened. All the missing signs and news pinups about the “End of Days” seem to attest to that. Naturally, he travels to a church where he finds pews filled with corpses, and one survivor, who for some reason seems to want to bite him…
*People may remember Murphy as The Scare Crow in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
But of course, he is narrowly saved by two healthy people – a woman named Selena (Naomi Harris) and her friend – who explain to him what’s been going on. Here too, the exposition was kept mercifully brief, the two basically telling him that a virus has devastated the country and that its spread through blood, bites, etc. He agrees to team up with them, but only if they can swing by his house, as he needs to know if his parents are still alive. Naturally, they are not, and infected people soon attack them. Selena’s friend is bitten in the process, and she is forced to kill him. Jim is upset by this, but Selena explains that this is how it is now. Needless sentiment lead to hesitation, which in turn leads to death. Now Selena and Jim are alone to wander the streets looking for other survivors.
Their search brings them to an apartment building where a father and daughter are holed up, and using Christmas lights to attract other survivors. A desperate chase follows as they are forced to run up the stairs as the infected chase them. But eventually they get to the landing where the father, Frank (Brendon Gleeson), is waiting for them in full riot gear! After beating down the infected, he lets them in and they meet his daughter, Hanna (Megan Burns), and begin swapping plans. It seems Frank has a radio and from their high elevation, they’ve been able to picking up a military radio transmission coming from Manchester that tells of a cure, food and shelter. The four of them make plans to go there straightaway.
Getting there is an adventure to be sure, the four having to flee from infected as they get out of the city and there being a few pacing scenes along the way. But eventually, they arrive to find the town of Manchester on fire, and that the transmission is coming from a military base nearby. However, the base appears to be deserted, the only inhabitants being infected crows and bodies. What follows is a heart wrenching scene where Frank gets a drop of blood in his eye and begins to change. He has just enough time to tell his daughter that he loves her before they realize he’s been infected and he goes bat-shit crazy! That’s when the army men reveal themselves and open fire on Frank!
They are then taken to the base’s main compound where the CO, Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), welcomes them. Jim and Selena are cautiously optimistic now that they have some protection and a roof over their head, but Hannah is understandably bitter. Her father is dead, after all, and these men were responsible. In the course of the next few days, the Major shows Jim their set up and explains what they’re doing. Seems they’ve been luring the infected to the compound and then killing them with bullets and landmines. They’ve also been keeping a live one for study so they can see how long they survive without the ability to feed. This one they call Mailer, since he was once one of them…
However, things go awry when a few things become clear. For one, the boys seem to like Selena, and are quite pushy on that fact. When Jim tries to intervene to keep them off her, the Major explains that his mens’ sanity has been hanging by a thread and he’s had to make promises to keep their morale from collapsing and them from offing themselves. In short, he promised them women… Suddenly, the signal, the one that lured them in with promises of safety, food and a cure makes perfect sense. The Major and his men, who think the world has gone to hell, are looking to create their own little society here, and need breeding stock! Jim resists, as does one of the soldiers, and the Major orders that they be shot.
While Selena and Hannah are forced to don dresses and prepare for an evening of rape, Jim manages to give the soldiers the slip and runs off. Before the other soldier is shot, he gives Jim some words of encouragement. The Major and the others insist the world is dying, he says, but he’s seen planes going overhead and thinks that’s a pretty strong indication that the carnage must be reserved to Britain. Jim takes some hope from this too, and begins to hatch a plan. He returns to the abandoned outpost where they first met the Major’s men and sets off the siren. This lures the Major and some of his troops, as they know that the siren will draw unwanted attention. When they show up, Jim manages to kill some of them, with the help of some infected, of course.
Back at the base, Selena sets Hanna free and is cornered by one of the soldiers who is about to rape her. However, Jim has returned to the base at this point and unleashes Mailer on them. While he creates all kinds of carnage, Jim manages to break in and kill the soldier who was going to rape Selena with his bare hands. Selena thinks he’s been infected too and is prepared to kill him, but hesitates just long enough to realize he’s clean. We quickly realize that she’s in love with Jim now, as she showed no hesitation when killing her old companion. The two kiss and reunite with Hannah, and all three commandeer a vehicle outside and prepare to drive off.
However, Major West is waiting for them and shoots Jim in the stomach. But Mailer shows up in time to grab West before he can shoot anyone else, and Hannah drives while Selena tends to Jim’s wound. The three then drive to a hospital where Selena tends to his wounds in a frantic montage of quick cut-scenes. Then, after being in a coma for another 28 days, Jim wakes up and finds that he’s recovering in bed, this time in some remote cottage. The three of them are now in the countryside where Hannah and Selena have prepared a massive cloth banner that spells out HELLO. Jim is now awake just in time to help them deploy it and to see a Finnish fighter jet fly overhead. The movie ends with Selena asking sarcastically, “Do you think he saw us this time?”
Apparently, Boyle and Garland also came up with a number of alternate endings as well, two of which were filmed and a third which never made it past storyboard. In the first, which was meant to be the original ending, Jim dies in the hospital, leaving Selena and Hannah to carry on. However, this ending was rejected after some test screening audiences said it was “too bleak”. Though the scene was meant to convey that the two ladies survived, audiences believed they were marching off to certain death. The second alternate ending included the rescue banner at the very end, but without Jim being present, so as to show that the ladies made it without him.
A third, which never made it past storyboard, was a radical departure. In this one, Jim, Selena, Hannah and Frank converge on a medical facility rather than a military base, the same one where the infected apes escaped from at the beginning. Frank is still infected, but it turns out that there is a cure available here. Unfortunately, the doctor at the base informs them that the cure consists of a full blood transfusion, and only Jim is a blood match. He therefore sacrifices himself to save Frank, and the movie ends. This ending was rejected by Boyle and Garland though, since they realized it was unrealistic. In essence, if an infection can spread through even a drop of blood, no amount of transfusing would work!
While they didn’t go with the ending they wanted, the movie still conveyed the same message all around. In it, we are given a pretty realistic take on zombies, one which ties in with the dangers of epidemics and how modern, industrial societies are vulnerable to infectious diseases. In addition, we get a story that’s chock full of allegory about the human condition. Whereas some people survive by becoming selfish and doing whatever they have to to go on – in Selena’s case, cutting all ties, in the Major’s case, promising his men women – ultimately, people are redeemed through acts of self-sacrifice and empathy.
Frank shows this through his abundant sense of generosity and how he’ll do anything to make sure his daughter survives. Selena demonstrates this by saving Jim and Hannah, allowing herself to care for them even though she’s presumably become hardened and only cares about staying alive. And of course, Jim demonstrates this by putting himself in danger to save Selena and Hannah, even though it nearly costs him his life. And of course, the three make it in the end only by mutual dependency and love. There’s even the bit about the rogue soldier who would rather die than give in to hopelessness and take part in a gang rape.
And that’s the movie. Simple, scary, effective and entertaining! It’s rare that a movie will come along that can cover all these bases, but this one managed to do it quite well. Its also a reminder that within the realm of low-budget cinema, there are some genuine gems waiting to be found. Hell, one could even make the case that low budgets are essential to the success of some movies. It ensures that there aren’t any over-the-top special effects to make it look fake, or a sense of mass appeal to water down the plot. And it just goes to show you what can happen when good acting, writing and direction come together!
28 Days Later
Entertainment Value: 8.5/10