For a genre about reanimating the dead, zombies were staying underground for the most part from the late 80’s through the whole 90’s. Day of the Dead (1985) had been the last high profile release for the longest time with only the odd standout here and there following it like Cemetery Man. Now-a-days, zombies are thriving greater than ever, with The Walking Dead being the most watched show on cable TV and multiple video games containing a zombie survival mode. You can’t go through five Internet pages without hitting something zombie related from movies to TV to clothing to any other kind of merchandise you can think of. Leave it up to a versatile filmmaker like Danny Boyle, one who is willing to navigate different genres, to spearhead this resurgence of the living dead with his zombie film that isn’t really a zombie film: 2002’s 28 Days Later.
Rather than the reanimated dead bodies of decades past, usually caused by radioactive material or some such, these creatures are actually living people infected with a fast-acting virus. This virus, caused by a rabid chimp let loose from its lab cage in the opening scene by animal rights activists, is a terrifyingly resonant origin for the outbreak envisioned by screenwriter Alex Garland (whom previously worked with Boyle on the misguided adaptation of his novel The Beach). Just as the fear of nuclear war influenced the classic George Romero rotting corpses, the parallels to modern chemical weapons fears are an appropriate update. Even more terrifying is that the contagion can spread without even a bite from its victims; a simple drop of blood invading an open wound (or eye lid) spells speedily certain doom for those who come in contact.
Ironically, the most eerie section of Boyle’s seminal film has nothing to do with the flesh-eaters or their infection at all. Following the tense prologue that sets the stage, we jump to our hero, Jim, lying stark naked in the hospital and waking from a coma. His pleas for help go unanswered, even when he ventures out into the vast public spaces of London. Boyle and Garland let total silence take over as Jim slowly walks through the streets with no one in sight. The lack of even any dead bodies enhances the ominous atmosphere even further, filling our imaginations with creepy thoughts of who, or what, is lurking out there in hiding. Boyle’s typically hyperactive editing and camera movements are (temporarily) reined in here for absolute stillness. His decision to shoot the entire film with handheld cameras brings the realness and immediacy of the situation to the forefront as filtered through its hazy visual scheme. There is no computer trickery here; London really was that empty when they shot these scenes.
Boyle’s restraint of style for this time serves a dual purpose though. The false sense of quiet complacency (albeit a tense one too) doesn’t prepare us for when full fury is unleashed, and the monsters have a new trick up their sleeve. Unlike traditional zombies, the infected people don’t take their sweet time to find flesh; they haul ass at breakneck speeds. Full of twitchy mannerisms and bloodshot eyes, the infected both set 28 Days Later apart from its zombie film brethren and gave familiar tropes of the subgenre a jolt of startling energy. One wasted second of energy could end everything, as exemplified in the exponentially suspenseful tunnel sequence. True to horror form, the sequence is marked by familiar elements of the genre: scared animals and shadows. As the survivors fervently fix their car, an army of rats scurries by carrying a companion army of infected some ways behind. Their piercing howls echo from afar, and then like a cadre of Nosferatus their shadows sprint along the lit tunnel wall. The beating suspense characterizes this do or die world with no time to pause out in the open, and Boyle illustrates that exponentially through the shaky footage he captures of these encounters. Despite not operating in the found footage subgenre, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle captures the grungy aesthetic of that method better than many real found footage horror films that play out in pristinely detailed high definition.
Yet for a horror film that prides itself on speedy hyperactivity during the action, 28 Days Later is actually fairly reserved throughout much of its story by focusing on the character relationships and their journeys. The relationship between Jim (Cillian Murphy) and Selena (Naomie Harris) is interesting both in how it ignores a clichéd sexual attraction and instead focuses on the opposite trajectories in their arcs. Given that he didn’t experience the initial month of the outbreak, Jim still retains a bit of his humanity while Selena has grown into a hardened warrior over time. In one of the more shocking scenes, for both Jim and the audience, she dispatches a newly infected human without pause in a fury of machete strikes. However, over the course of time their roles begin to swap, particularly after meeting young Hannah (Megan Burns) and her father Frank (Brendan Gleeson). Through their time spent together, Selena sees herself starting to become a protective mother figure for Hannah, allowing Harris to define a character who is rough around the edges but not completely heartless. Her and Gleeson provide the glimpses of compassion and tenderness that are a necessary contrast to the chaotic circumstances surrounding them.
Jim meanwhile takes a different turn once the group comes into contact with a squad of soldiers lead by Major West (Christopher Eccleston). As with many zombie movies, the soldiers turn out to be not as helpful as they seem, so Jim has to turn to his dark side if he wants to survive. Unlike Selena though, who was remorseless because it was a necessity for survival, Jim is filled with pure rage during the climax. Boyle makes a point to draw parallels between him and the crazed infected, though admittedly this turn in characterization is more rushed than it should be. Eccleston aside, a class act who can elevate just about any material, the rest of the soldiers are rather underdeveloped, making an easy out to explain Jim’s drastic actions. If it weren’t for Murphy’s fiercely convincing and scary performance, one so much so that he briefly became typecast as world-class creeps following this film, the big conclusion wouldn’t work as well as it does. Another big reason for this is John Murphy’s music work that has rightfully joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scores. The major centerpiece track, “In the House In a Heartbeat,” which plays over Jim’s assault, is a stunning model of mood setting that escalates into a heart-pounding crescendo of guitar strings.
Within an otherwise fantastic film, it is unfortunate that Garland isn’t able to stick the landing in the end. The very last scene is a completely jarring tonal shift that strives for a positive endpoint that it doesn’t earn. Given the multiple alternate endings on the home release, including an unsatisfying downer and a misguided do-over of the whole final act, it’s clear that the filmmakers couldn’t figure out the right resolution. Luckily, the confused denouement isn’t enough to discredit the confident work that precedes it. The debates over whether the infected are zombies or not are just superficial semantics. With 28 Days Later, Boyle and Garland redefined horror by twisting established characteristics of the zombie subgenre into an original piece that stands tall and fresh in the annals of the genre. After all, there are only so many times characters can be attacked by the shambling walkers before realizing they can just run away. In this new wasteland however, cardio is your most important resource.