28 Days Later

Movie Information

Genre: Horror
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston
Rated: R

It has perhaps the worst title in the history of film (“Hey, is this the sequel to the Sandra Bullock movie?”). It occasionally suffers from the inherent limitations of shooting on digital video. The script has a couple of problems. And it’s undeniably derivative of a raft of earlier movies.

But all that said, Danny Boyle’s new shocker is also intense, disturbing, thought-provoking and clearly the horror movie of the year.

I’d say 28 Days Later is this year’s The Ring, but that would be dangerous, because Boyle’s film is a lot more in-your-face, flat-out horror, and viewers who found The Ring’s PG-13 creepiness pleasantly unsettling may well find this extremely R-rated film altogether too much to take. But for those who can handle it, this is modern horror at its finest … at least most of the time.

Let’s get the downsides out of the way: The film was shot on digital video (except for the last few scenes) and then transferred to film, And while this usually works to 28 Days Later‘s advantage — imparting a kind of immediacy combined with an otherworldly look — the format’s usual problems are in evidence, too. Close-ups, most interiors and medium shots look fine, but long shots and scenes with too much visual information are often muddy and sometimes even out of focus.

There are also several screenwriting head-scratchers: Why do the survivors subsist on chocolate bars when grocery stores full of tinned food are there for the taking? Why does it take a third of the movie for it to occur to anyone to use a car?

Add to that the most you upside-the-head product placement imaginable: What do you want most when you first come out of a coma and find you’re the only living soul in town? A Pepsi, of course.

The plot itself is hardly original. Chimpanzees infected with a “rage virus” at a Cambridge laboratory are released by animal-rights activists and 28 days later, nearly all of Great Britain is either dead, or turned into rage-filled, flesh-eating zombies. (There’s a bit of inherent satire in this happening on an island that prides itself on being rabies-free, and takes great measures to remain so.) In the meantime, a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy, Disco Pigs) has been lying unconscious in a hospital bed, following an accident. He regains consciousness to find the hospital and then the whole of London apparently deserted — at least until he enters a church and is confronted by a small horde of the murderous “infected,” who view him as just another box lunch on legs. Fleeing from the marauding throng, he’s rescued by the only other apparent humans in town, Selena (Naomie Harris, Living in Hope) and Mark (Noah Huntley, the fellow who ages into Michael York in Megiddo), who bring him up to speed on what’s happened.

Yep, you’ve seen it all before with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man and, of course, in George A. Romero’s “Dead” trilogy. But in all honesty, you’ve never seen it quite like this. The most immediately obvious difference — apart from the film simply being better scripted and acted than its predecessors — is Boyle’s rethinking of the basic concept of the zombie: These boys are not your father’s walking dead. The traditional movie zombie is a lurching, shambling horror woefully lacking in both coordination and speed, making it necessary for its intended victim to somehow back himself into a corner in order to meet his demise. Not so the Boyle breed. The walking-dead horrors in 28 Days Later move like lightning, and while their coordination and thought processes might still be wanting, they’re nothing to trifle with.

Speed, in fact, is at the core of Boyle’s film. Zomboid infection in other flicks usually requires some considerable time to take. In 28 Days Later, you have 10 to 20 seconds once even a drop of a zombie’s blood enters the system before the change takes place. Your friend and ally — even your own father — can turn into a ravenous monster without a moment’s notice.

That’s the surface of the story, but there’s a lot more going on here than that. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (whose novel was the source for Boyle’s The Beach) have crafted a tale of much more convoluted horror than just another undead-on-a-rampage flick — regardless of how high 28 Days Later scores on that level. The characters are just too real — and by far the worst horrors in the film come less from the zombies than from uninfected humans. The wrong-headed “heroics” and weaknesses of the still-living in the Romero films are as nothing compared to the unspeakable evil that lurks beneath the surface of humankind here, especially as encountered when the main characters meet up with their supposed rescuers in the second half of the film. And even that pales when the film turns into what is essentially a variation on the climax of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

In the end, what Boyle shows us is the potential horror that lurks in us all. His film is an unnerving, uncomfortable little blast from doomsday. And yet it is finally — if not entirely convincingly — about not hopelessness but hopefulness, despite its illustration of the level to which humankind can descend. And ultimately, 28 Days Later — despite some of the most intense horror footage I’ve ever seen — is too complex to be simply categorized as a horror picture in the traditional sense. It’s all that and more.

In other words, this is exactly the kind of horror movie you’d expect from the maker of Trainspotting.

Alternate ending

28 Days Later … is still a killer horror film. And it’s still one of the best films in what has so far been a pretty lackluster year. So if you haven’t seen it, or want to see it again, then do so. But, for goodness sake, don’t get suckered into going to see it on account of any “alternate ending.”

In the first place, Fox didn’t send out a replacement reel — they sent out four minutes and 24 seconds of footage that was tacked onto the movie after the credits, bearing the title, “What if. ..” The effect is about on par with accessing the deleted-scenes footage on a DVD. Moreover, it’s quickly apparent why writer/director Danny Boyle opted to replace this downbeat ending with the one on the film as it was originally released.

In a word, the “alternate” ending is dull.

If you’re expecting to be shattered, you’re going to be let down. If you’re expecting additional high-powered zombie action, you’re going to be downright annoyed — cuz there’s nary a zombie in sight.

You are warned.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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