28 Days Later (2002)

Director: Danny Boyle

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns

There is a moment early on in “28 Days Later” which represents my worst nightmare so precisely that it’s scary. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up alone in a hospital room. Part of his head is shaved and he has a scar from a recent surgery. Jim gets up, walks out of the hospital onto the streets of the town he’s lived in all his life… and there’s no one out there. Something’s definitely not right about this, because it’s the middle of the day and there should be hundreds of people on foot or in their cars. He shouts, “HELLO!” hoping that someone… anyone will hear his voice. No answer. Of course, eventually Jim does find other people, because the movie wouldn’t be able to hold anyone’s interest for the nearly two hours of its running time if he didn’t. But it’s the idea that everyone you’ve ever known has disappeared off the face of the Earth while you were sleeping that is truly frightening.

Alas, poor Jim has awoken into a world where his homeland of Great Britain is overrun with an epidemic, referred to as “the Rage,” that turns people into rabid animals. The virus is transmutable by the blood of the infected. All you have to do is be cut, bitten, or get their blood in your mouth or eyes, and seconds later you’re one of them. The first thing on Jim’s mind, as it would be with anyone thrust into a situation like this, is to go find his parents to make sure they’re okay. Selena (Naomie Harris) warns him that isn’t the smartest course of action. Selena’s world view is that “it’s all f***ed” and, with little hope for the future, the only reason to go on anymore is simply to survive. She softens up on this after she and Jim meet with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Here at least is one family unit that is (mostly) intact… for the time being. They hear a radio message from a military officer (Christopher Eccleston) who tells anyone listening that his base offers safe harbor and an answer to the epidemic. The idea is too good to pass up, so off they go. What they’re expecting is somewhat different from what they find once they get there.

The first time I saw “28 Days Later,” just after the film’s DVD release in the fall of 2003, I had been lured in by the trailers and had created in my mind a false impression of what I thought the movie was supposed to be. When I watched it, and it turned out to be much different from what I had imagined, that produced a negative reaction. Remembering that, I had come into the preparations for my second viewing, ten years later, believing I was going to be writing my first negative review on this blog. That will have to wait, because I found much to my surprise that this is a REALLY good movie. Ten years ago, I must have been thinking I was going to be watching the typical zombie movie, where the dead rise and attack the living with superhuman strength. (How else can one explain the way that zombies tear through human flesh like tissue paper?)

“28 Days Later” is not the typical zombie movie. It’s not really even a zombie movie, per se, as those who carry the virus may occasionally bite the living, but you never see them devouring one. The worst they usually do is vomit blood on their victims (and yes, that looks as gross as it sounds). You also never hear anyone utter the word “zombie,” as anyone who catches the bug are henceforth referred to as “the Infected.” Yet, “28 Days Later” helped invigorate the zombie genre, which by the time of 2002 was close to dead. AMC’s immensely popular TV series “The Walking Dead” (and the comic upon which it is based) might not have been possible without “28 Days Later,” especially when you consider that its main character, Rick Grimes, also wakes up in a hospital to find his hometown empty.

Looking back, I’m fairly certain my main gripe with the story, aside from the lack of zombie action, was the second half of the film that deals with the military base. This part of the movie shouldn’t have affected me so negatively, as similar themes were explored in George Romero’s “Day of the Dead” (1985), and were also recently touched on in a Jonestown-like setting with Season 3 of “The Walking Dead.” In my opinion, there are no actual villains in “28 Days Later,” only victims. The idea is that, for every person with a strong constitution, there will inevitably be many others who will lose their minds trying to survive in a world where the rules no longer make any sense, and survival of the species means that extreme measures be taken. It’s not excusable, but it’s understandable.

  1. vinnieh says:

    Totally agree with you about that scene early on in a deserted London, chilling stuff.

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