28 Days Later (2002)


28 Days Later

Although its title might lead you to believe that they actually made a sequel to the awful Sandra Bullock movie about alcoholism, 28 Days Later is anything but a journey through rehab. In fact, the disturbing, grotesque nature of the film makes rehab look like a peaceful picnic at the zoo… well, just as long as there aren’t monkeys at that zoo.

The recipe for 28 Days Later is quite simple: half Outbreak, half Night of the Living Dead, and maybe a dash or two of Planet of the Apes. While the ingredients are familiar, thankfully, director Danny Boyle, who also helmed the bizarre Trainspotting, contributes his own unique seasonings, turning this acidic dish into a journey through hell-on-earth; it’s one of the most frightening movies of the year.

Now, back to those primates. They’re being used for morbid experiments at a Cambridge research facility. As the movie opens, several animal rights activists break into the facility to rescue their furry friends, but a scientist catches them and tells them to stay away from the apes because they are infected with ‘rage.’ The activists disregard his warning, however, and release an ape from captivity anyway. It doesn’t jump into their arms and thank them, though. Instead, it creates a violent and bloody uproar, killing one of the activists and attacking the others.

CUT TO: 28 days later…

A man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens naked from a quiet hospital room. Bewildered, he detaches the cords and wires from his body, stumbles out of bed, and dresses himself. He then leaves his room to look for a nurse, but he doesn’t find a single person in the building. Jim leaves the hospital and searches the London streets for any sign of life, but he doesn’t find any there either. The streets are deserted. Cars are flipped. Trash is scattered everywhere. The town looks as if it was struck by a humongous tornado. No such luck.

Jim inadvertently discovers a priest in a nearby church. But the priest does not offer prayer. Instead, he hisses and snarls as his eyes glow red. He attacks Jim, but Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomi Harris), come to his rescue. After slaughtering the priest, they explain to Jim that an infection has wiped out the entire country except for a few survivors. The infection is transferred through blood, and if someone does become infected, he must be killed within 20 seconds, or else he will become an enraged zombie like the priest. At this point, Jim would have preferred the tornado.

Jim and the remaining survivors eventually stumble upon two others, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). When a radio broadcast informs them about an active military base a considerable distance away, they team up to make the dangerous journey across town. Little do they know, however, the infection is not the only thing that will pose a threat to their lives.

28 Days Later will leave you gasping for breath for days to come. It’s disturbing not because we don’t know what’s going to happen… but because we do know what’s going to happen: gruesome bloodshed to several key characters who we really care about. Although similarly fast and focused, this is not like the stylized violence of Blade or The Matrix Reloaded; it’s gruesome, unpleasant violence. We want no part of it, and we certainly don’t want it to happen to these characters, for whom it’s all they can do to keep hope alive. However, the movie never makes us immune to the blood and gore by using it excessively – it’s used in moderation, making it all the more effective.

28 Days Later is also much more than a conventional zombie movie. Boyle takes full advantage of the genre, but still calls his own shots; it’s not just about zombies, but also about survival of the fittest and the endurance of hope. This movie is also rich with symbolism. The nudity in the opening is symbolic of Jim’s rebirth into the new world and his vulnerability at the beginning as opposed to his state at the end. Boyle also includes some emotionally charged human moments, such as the discovery of Jim’s dead parents and when Frank finally surrenders hope.

Yet I left the movie a little disappointed. The most intriguing things about this movie are left undeveloped. The 28 days in which the infection overwhelms the country are only briefly developed in a few lines of dialogue, and that is nowhere near enough. If an infection wipes out an entire population, we’d like to know how it accomplished that in more detail. Clearly, Boyle’s intent was not to investigate the outbreak, but to ponder on human survival. Still, he bears a responsibility to further develop the most fascinating aspect of the movie… the 28 days themselves.

Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland offer an interesting commentary track on the new DVD, but most buyers and renters are going to want to check out the three heralded alternate endings on display. The first, which was tacked on to the theatrical print, is on the tired side, and the second alternate ending is just an extension of that one. Finally, there’s a ‘radical’ alternative ending, which lives up to its name. Alas, that ending is actually more like a radical second half of the film, and it exists only in storyboards. Quite intriguing, though.

Aka 28 Days Later…

Better pray.