< Horror Film History — 28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later - Danny Boyle

Horror movies in the 2000s: 28 Days Later — SPOILERS AHEAD

28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle
Cillian Murphy,
Naomie Harris,
Christopher Ecclestone

Rapidly emerging as the classic horror movie of the early 2000s, 28 Days Later is a low budget, digitally shot entry into the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. Debate still swirls as to whether or not the zombies really count as zombies - technically they aren't, as they are not dead, just locked by a virus into a state of extreme rage, hellbent on the destruction of those around them. They are also fast - gone are the stiff-legged stumblers of Romero's Night/Dawn/Day.

Alex Garland's script is both innovative and chilling, cutting right to the heart of what might happen should a whole nation be laid waste by a virus. The story centres round a group of survivors; everyday, ordinary people without special skills - a bike courier, a taxi driver. Their survival is a lucky accident. When Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from his coma he discovers the ward around him has been destroyed and he is alone in the hospital. He has slept through the devastation, too inert to register as a threat, and wakes into an all-too-plausible nightmare. His immediate surroundings are eerily abandoned, and when he ventures into the outside world he finds everything has changed.

Immediately obvious in his bright green hospital gown, Jim is the only moving object in the frame as he wanders through the deserted London landmarks — the very definition of Freud's Uncanny (ie simultaneously familiar and strange). After a couple of nightmarish encounters with the infected, he joins forces with a fellow survivor, the hard-edged Selena (Naomie Harris). She puts the pieces of the disaster together for him.
"Right from the beginning you knew this was different, because it was happening in small villages, market towns. And then it wasn't on the TV any more. It was in the street outside, it was coming through your windows. It was a virus."

She warns him there are new rules for living, that involve split-second, murderous decision making. When a companion comes into contact with infected blood or saliva "you've got between 10-20 seconds to kill someone." Selena has been on the streets for 28 days already. She's ready to kill "in a heartbeat".

Not all the survivors are as brutal in this new world order. Jim and Selena team up with gentle single dad, Frank, and his daughter Hannah, and make the drive north to Manchester in response to a radio signal promising "the solution to infection". So much of their journey — the silent Blackwall tunnel, the car free M1 — have a chilling resonance for anyone who has ever struggled with British traffic congestion. These familiar scenes, stripped of cars and people, are utterly sinister. This eerie new world is dangerous — bloodthirsty zombies lurk in every building, and even mild-mannered Jim finds himself bludgeoning an infected boy to death with a baseball bat — but also strangely peaceful. The blight of humanity has been removed, and England is once more reverting to a green and pleasant land. There is time in their journey for a pastoral idyll. Despite the empty roads, it takes them a couple of days to reach the M62, and they spend the night in the grounds of a verdant ruined castle. Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah watch a small herd of horses, now wild, galloping through the evening mist. They're not infected, they're "doing just fine". The humans? Not so much. Selena, never one to look on the bright side, tells Jim

"You'll never hear another piece of original music ever again. You'll never read a book that hasn't already been written, or see a film that hasn't already been shot."

They are Omega people, scratching for survival in the ruins of civilisation. Nothing will ever be the way it was. But our survivors, thanks to the civilising relationship between teenage Hannah and her kindly father, behave with courtesy and dignity. Even Selena shows signs of relaxing her guard, as she begins to trust and confide in Jim ("I was wrong when I said that staying alive is as good as it gets"). Unfortunately, the removal of social constraints doesn't have the same effect on everyone. When they finally discover the source of the "solution to infection" radio signal, it is not a massive, well equipped army base, but a last outpost. A small band of soldiers, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) have barricaded themselves into a stately home, and are rapidly descending into the Heart of Darkness. Frank, whose innate decency might have countered the soldiers' disintegrating morality, is already dead. For very different reasons, Selena, Jim and Hannah are all lost without him.

"He won't plant crops, he won't bake bread. He's telling me he's futureless. "

"Men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." —Joseph Conrad Under Western Eyes (1911)

The third act of 28 Days Later ratchets up the chill factor with barely a zombie in sight. The infected hordes are kept at bay through technology - tripwires, landmines, floodlights, razor wire ("You wouldn't want to mow the lawn"). The real threat is human-on-human. Channelling Col. Kurtz, West outlines his vision of the apocalypse to Jim. West has no illusions about calling for help or waiting for rescue. He is the army. He is it. He feels his duty is to reconstruct, and to that end is recreating feudal society within the old house, based on his rigid sense of army hierarchy. He takes Jim on a tour of the kitchens, where clueless, pinny wearing soldiers clown around, approximating the behaviour of a kindly cook ("Doris") from another era. West introduces Jim to Miller, chained in a side yard. Miller got infected a couple of days previously, and, instead of putting him out of his misery, West keeps him chained up (see right), for observation purposes. "Eventually, he'll teach me how long the infected take to starve to death."

West betrays no trace of compassion when regarding his infected subordinate. He does, however, betray his megalomaniac leanings, as he thinks ahead to a time when the infected are all dead, and England is his for the taking. This is reinforced in the next scene, as he presides over a nightmarish dinner party in full dress uniform. He is entirely unperturbed by the current state of affairs. An army man to the core, he regards "people killing people" as Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. He confides to Jim that he promised the soldiers some women, in order to give them something to live for. In West's new world, Selena and Hannah are simply building blocks. Any objections to West's plan are quickly stifled: Jim and the "new age sergeant" Farrell, are sent for execution in the woods outside the house - a move straight out of the Brothers Grimm. It seems that, during the apocalypse, there can be no such thing as sanctuary.

Like Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White, Jim survives his trip to the woods, and sees the trail of a jet in the sky. He realises he must oppose West's cold, ungentle humanity, and fight for survival in a better world. It's worth taking major risks for. While Selena and Hannah use all their wits to avert the horror of organised gang rape, Jim launches an attack the best way he knows how, manipulating the infected — the very worst kind of insurgents — and the Manchester rain into aiding him.

It turns out our soldiers, once separated from their claymores, are not such a well-trained bunch, and are ill-equipped to deal with the monster within the house. Darkness and thunderstorm add to the chaos, and West's new world rapidly falls apart as the soldiers panic and, thanks to a rampaging Miller, succumb to the virus themselves. A shirtless, soaking Jim peers through the windows at the maelstrom he has created, and is as uncaring as West would be. These are not his people, this is not his way. He has learned that survival is not just about staying alive, it's about protecting the people and things you believe in. Nothing else matters — even if you have to descend to the same degenerate level as the threat you are fighting.

Happily Ever After?

28 Days Later has three extant endings. The one selected for US theatrical release is upbeat, and suggests our survivors will eventually be rescued, that Britain's island status has helped contain the infection and an outside world still operates. An alternative theatrical ending has Jim dying of his wounds, and Hannah and Selena walking into an uncertain future together. This version did not go down well with initial test audiences, although it remains the favourite of the film-makers, and is much more in keeping with the bleak tone of the rest of the movie. Fox Searchlight added this ending as a coda (subbed "... what if?") to over a thousand prints of the movie. A third version, which never made it past a rough cut, has only Selena and Hannah rescued.

28 Days Later delivers everything you could ask for in a horror movie, although it's often described as a sci-fi thriller. Understandably so. The "zombie moments" are few and far between, and the screenplay concentrates on character-building and suspense. Rather than exploring the gore factor of mass infection, it dwells on the psychological impact, which has a much greater resonance. We all wonder how we might respond under extreme pressure, extreme, end-of-the-world-as-we-know it kind of pressure. The tight focus on four characters means that each one gets a lot of screen time, and, having shared moments of warmth as well as moments of terror, we really come to care about their fate.

It is a horror movie nonetheless. There is an ever-present threat. There are some definite Grand Guignol flourishes in the execution of the story that reference fairy tales and other horror movies: the malevolent black crow, straight outta Bodega Bay, that is responsible for Frank's death; Hannah and Selena's red satin ballgowns as they flee through the shadows in the old house; the gore that drips through every frame representing the infected. It has a unique atmosphere, the result partly of the taut script, and partly of the soft-focus, less saturated images generated by digital cameras. Many scenes were shot on a multi-camera set up, using lots of close ups, adding a raw dimension to performances - we are encouraged to respond viscerally to many scenes, not something often demanded of a sci-fi audience. A haunting score by John Murphy which highlights the eerie and the ominous completes the horror experience.

Masked office workers fear lunchbreak infection, Hong Kong, March 2003

Some of 28 Days Later's power, unusually for a horror movie, lies in its realism. In some ways, it is the heir to The Blair Witch Project. From the news footage which opens the title sequence — riots, lynching, hangings, sobbing mothers and police brutality — the action is placed firmly in the here and now. This is not Mittel Europe, nor a galaxy far away. The digital footage — the 'home movie' effect — only enhances that sensation. Shot in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, 28 Days Later proved to be uncannily preminiscent, both of familiar cities laid waste by disaster, and of global infection. 9/11 saw the normally crowded streets of New York closed and deserted, and landmarks plastered with "Have You Seen...?" posters. SARS devastated the Hong Kong economy in 2003 as the threat of a new, incurable virus shut schools and public offices, decimated tourism and business travel, and had the whole world wondering if it could happen to them. Whilst SARS receded as a threat, the global medical community is still on standby alert for outbreaks of its close cousin, avian flu. And, although at the time of filming the breakdown of West's platoon might have been a cultural reference to Vietnam war movies, the representation of soldiers, flailing without any moral compass to guide them, was to echo loudly in news stories for the rest of the decade.

Further reading


©Karina Wilson 2008