There are many ingredients required to make a zombie film, and surprisingly zombies aren’t one of them. George A. Romero invented everything we now hold dear about the undead with Night of the Living Dead and his template has informed each iteration since. Variations, such as zombies who survive decapitation and dismemberment in Return of the Living Dead and the capricious, intelligent ghouls resurrected in the Evil Dead series nevertheless abide the definition, and try as he might, Danny Boyle could not shake the zombie film label from 28 Days Later.
There are many themes that appear in zombie fiction, and most of them relate to morality, altered attitudes toward death, methods by which society breaks down, and the transformation of people in crisis. Semantically, the infected people in the film do not fit the classical definition of the undead as they have not resurrected. What Boyle perhaps failed to realize is that the label should have been embraced, because with 28 Days Later, he and screenwriter Alex Garland teamed together to make the best zombie film since Dawn of the Dead.
The idea that a few animal rights activists could cause a worldwide epidemic is a potent one, and one that brings up fascinating ethical questions: Was it right to infect chimpanzees as a test of this virus? Where did it come from? Was the release of the virus karmic retribution? Does evil beget evil? Fortunately Garland elects not to focus on his invention, instead fast-forwarding the eponymous time frame to join Jim, played by Cillian Murphy in his breakout role, as he wakes up in a hospital bed having been comatose for more than a month. He finds all of downtown London abandoned until he crosses the path of an infected horde and is saved at the last minute by Selena, played by Naomie Harris, and Mark. In their downtime, they explain that the virus has wiped out most of their civilization.
What makes 28 Days Later astonishing is that the aforementioned themes of undead fiction are bubbling beneath the surface of every moment, yet the story remains a procedural quest predicated upon hope, highlighted by moments of action and suspense that will forever remain among the best in the genre precisely because they, too, do not stray from the plot. Garland extends the reach of his story well beyond the boundaries that had made apocalyptic horror films stagnant, cross referencing the best of social science fiction with well-drawn, sympathetic characters. Indeed, he listed The Day of the Triffids as an influence for Jim’s awakening in the hospital.
Early in the film it is made quite clear that no one is safe from the infection, or indeed other characters. Murphy, Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Huntley, and Megan Burns had quite the task set out for them, because few contemporary horror films carry the sort of depth necessary to actually make the audience care, but there can be no doubting that they pull it off with panache; any person put in peril is quickly accompanied by a racing pulse as the makers double down by perfectly executing flashy thrills, and this combination creates a perfect storm that engages even the most jaded viewer’s full empathy. As the protagonist boils over from peaceful everyman to a borderline psychopathic machine, Garland returns the audience to his ethical questions and the film comes full circle without once distracting from the story.
In spite of the inherent bleakness in the story, there is a surprising amount of warmth and humor, and both of which come across without being overly saccharine or as an excuse to break up the tension. Boyle has always been attracted to overt stylistic touches, such as the video game footage in The Beach and the infamous baby in Trainspotting. In his lesser films, these touches appear heavy handed, but in 28 Days Later, they are mystifying. Breaking up the realistic trend with a memorable wipe cut that binds the two scenes before transitioning and superimposing a taxi full of survivors over an impressionistic painting stands in diametric opposition with the film’s serious tone, and the intrusions are so sudden and brief that it’s both hard to reconcile them and hard to imagine the film without them.
The production elements of 28 Days Later are of particular note, because Anthony Dod Mantle’s grainy, digital cinematography would look cheap in any other film, but he makes it work for the material. And if anyone should accuse him of being a stylistic dross, his work in Antichrist would silence any critic. While the film’s collected soundtrack of songs is impressive, nothing could have suited the film more than John Murphy’s pulse-pounding score that became an immediate template for every thriller and horror film to follow.
Overall, 28 Days Later is a synchronistic film, greater than the sum of its admittedly daunting parts, pure in its intentions and emotional discourse yet unimaginably raw and brutal. Its influence is already such that related media has begun presupposing its concept with far lesser returns; the series premiere of The Walking Dead features a nearly identical coma-awakening framing device. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Boyle and company can look forward to veneration for decades to come.
Anyone looking to acquire 28 Days Later on hard format had best keep it a secret from friends; any true horror or zombie aficionado would be remiss if it weren’t in their collection, particularly when it’s available for a pittance on DVD. HD enthusiasts will be happy to know that both 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are available in a blu-ray combo package cheap enough to make owning the pair a necessity.