28 Days Later… (2003) is the film where director Danny Boyle got past simple acts of cinematic cleverness and finally lived up to the promise of Trainspotting (1996) and Shallow Grave (1994). It’s also the movie that brought zombie horror back into vogue—for better or for worse—within pop culture. And without getting into the specifics of whether this is or is not zombie horror—this isn’t the George A. Romero-style shambling undead at work here—it’s close enough for me. Regardless of the what subgenre the film falls into—and pointing out that Romero doesn’t have the last, or even first, word in zombies—or of any shortcomings or oversights that might crop up within the script, the film remains one of the best horror movies to come out over the past decade, if not the best. This is flat-out nasty, bloody, scary horror here, yet intelligent, and keeping a firm grasp on the humanity that’s become a staple of Boyle’s oeuvre.
The film’s Omega Man/Day of the Triffids set up is nothing too original, with bike messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up in a hospital after a month being comatose due to a traffic accident, only to find that the whole of London has been apparently abandoned. That is, until he happens upon a church full of corpses, all being snacked upon by—what we find out later to be—“the infected.” It seems a group of environmental activists accidentally released chimps diseased with something called “Rage,” a virus that causes humans and the like to turn into savage, mindless cannibals in a matter of seconds. The disease quickly spread, and we find the bulk of England either dead or infected, and a handful of survivors struggling to stay alive. The side effects of this disease is where Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have ratcheted things up a bit, since instead of slow, ambling zombies, we get nasties who are fleet of foot and mindlessly, savagely violent.
Abandoned and deadly, this is the England that Jim must traverse—with the help of his soon-to-be companions Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns)—in order to reach a military outpost which promises “the answer to infection.” While a good chunk of the movie deals with this journey and the perils it brings, the real meat of the film is in the ultimate arrival to their destination, where 28 Days Later… becomes less a horror film about unspeakable monsters lurking around every corner, and more about the lengths people will go to survive—and continue surviving. The real horrors lie in the ordinary people, and this is where the film’s humanity—and other’s inhumanity—lies.
Almost the entire movie—sans the final scenes—are shot in low-grade digital video, which, while often muddy, make the visuals of the film something akin to a nightmare. The world of the film is dark and murky, and the bulk of 28 Days Later…’s mood and atmosphere is derived from this simple technical choice. But this is not an ugly film, even despite its fits of violence and gore, and the muddy look of it all. Even through the film’s intense, nasty climax, there’s still a heart beating underneath it all. And this is what makes 28 Days Later… work—it’s an inherently human film, about characters you come to like and genuinely care for. Here’s the magic Boyle deals in; by going beyond the aims of just scaring you, he’s made 28 Days Later.. an essential of modern horror.