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Non-Review Review: 28 Days Later

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

I know there’s some debate as to whether this is actually a zombie movie – what with the “infected” not technically being dead and all (not to mention the running) – but I think it feels like a “zombie” movie, even if the creatures aren’t necessarily zombies. I’m going to be entirely honest here and confess that while I was impressed with Trainspotting, it was 28 Days Later which confirmed to me the Danny Boyle was a talent to watch. Not just for offering a film which feels different yet never inaccessible, but also for his ability to shift genre – The Beach confirmed him as a quirky almost-indie director, but 28 Days Later demonstrated that he could bring the same talent to low-budget horror. More than that, he constructed a shrewd little film which feels more like a George A. Romero film than any of his more recent efforts.

Danny Boyle's on fire...

The film was one of the first that I saw on high definition. Even watching the film today, it looks slightly rougher than most studio films. The camera feels more intimate with its subjects, almost like the most beautifully apocalyptic home video ever constructed. You get used to it quickly enough, but the vibrant colours are still somewhat jarring on putting the movie on. It allows Boyle a rich palette when filming his scenes, and immediately distinguishes the film from the bulk of other genre works out there. Despite the experimental nature of the film, it’s still constructed and staged with the utmost skill – these sorts of films have always focused on the individuals caught in the midst of these huge events, and Boyle’s style lends the movie an almost personal feel.

The story is relatively straightforward. A virus is unwittingly unleashed by a bunch of animal rights terrorists and twenty-eight days later Jim awakes from a coma he found himself in following a bike crash. The world is a very different place. Jim and the souls he encounters on his journey struggle to make sense of a world turned upside down. However, what immediately distinguishes the film from the pack is the skill of Boyle as a visual storyteller. The opening scenes in a deserted London (filmed by the crew at dawn in summer – 5am and earlier) are almost iconic and eerily effective. Boyle borrow imagery from a whole manner of sources – with boards filled with memorials and letters and photos reminding the viewer of those present at Ground Zero. Everything is well staged – although Boyle keeps the camera tight on his actors, he manages a sense of scale quite well.

The action sequences are well-constructed (though anyone who had seen The Beach would have little reason to doubt Boyle could put together an impressive set piece), and the celluloid drips with atmosphere. Though you know deep down that this sort of film was inevitably made on a shoestring budget, there’s very little compromise. It’s effectively and efficiently staged. Though the story itself is well told and the script is well written, it is what Boyle himself brings to te screen that makes the film so unique.

Though one can tell that Boyle knows he owes a debt to Romero as a storyteller – indeed, there’s a scene here where one character recounts the loss of his family to a survivor who has just become aware of the situation, recalling a conversation between Ben and Barbara in the original The Night of the Living Dead – one gets the sense that Boyle would balk at his production being described as “a zombie film”. As is traditional in the form, he avoids the word “zombie”, but he also goes out of his way to offer a strictly rational reason for what is occurring. Many zombie films enjoy playing with multiple possible unexplained causes – both scientific and irrational – but Boyle’s film isn’t afraid to literally pin down the cause of the plague, even showing us the exact point of origin before extrapolating the state of the country four weeks later.

Dead London...

However, Boyle tackles the deep philosophical questions at the heart of the genre in an endearingly earnest manner. Sure, there are horrible monsters on hand to provide visceral thrills, but the real issue here is how humanity endures through this horror? What parts of our world do we hold on to? Do we remain civilised even as we lose anything? What does morality mean when staring at extinction? What is purpose? What is, as one of Jim’s colleagues mocks, the “plan”? Is there a “plan” anymore or is it the case that “staying alive’s as good as it gets”?

More than that, what distinguishes those who live from those who don’t in this horror landscape? An army officer, commenting on the infection, remarks that he sees now what he has always seen – “people killing people”. These beasts are essentially us stripped of humanity. At one point, a character has studied an infected individual and made observations about the nature of these creatures. They represent a regressive humanity – devolved almost. “He’s telling me he’ll never bake bread, farm crops, raise livestock,” the character observed, reflecting that the infected are “futureless”. They are humanity stripped of civilisation – a devolution of man, a regression. Man stripped of the sophistication and comforts that civilised society allows. And then Boyle dares to ask how Jim and his band of survivors distinguish them from these violent monsters when society collapses – take away our creature comforts and do we become just as aggressive and destructive?

Boyle has put together a hell of a cast for the film. This movie essentially made Cillian Murphy a big-name Irish actor, and there’s a superb supporting cast on show. It’s great to see Christopher Eccleston on the big screen in an interesting role – one so much more fascinating than his work on big Hollywood productions like Gone in Sixty Seconds or G.I. Joe. And, speaking as an Irish person, Brendan Gleeson is a national treasure. He’s fantastic in a supporting role here as a concerned father.

28 Days Later is a wonderful little zombie film which perhaps represents the genre at its most thoughtful. It’s shrewd, smart and well-plotted, but it’s primarily a vehicle for Boyle’s wonderful director’s eye. It’s a quirky example of how modern horror can still find a way to offer commentary on the day-to-day world, and how the genre can be so much more than cheap and trashy entertainment.

2 Responses

  1. Not a fan of the genre but I gave this one a chance and really appreciate Boyle’s take on this. Like you said, it’s thoughtful and quite poignant… not frivolous and silly or extremely gory like most zombie flicks out there.

    • Yep, I think that Boyle has a talent for taking what could be deemed “trashy genre fare” and making it special. Have you seen Sunshine?

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