The days are numbered…
Which version of the Apocalypse is better: the all-out effects extravaganza, famous monuments toppling and exploding into a million shards of blockbuster rubble, or the tiny tale of the last man (or humans) on Earth? Is the bombastic before what we crave, or is the aftermath struggle to survive more palatable? For years now, this argument has raged in science fiction and horror films. For every calm, somber exploration of man's final stance upon the planet (The Quiet Earth, The Last Man) we get violent hordes of the living dead (Romero's Dead films, Italian horror mainstay Zombie), bloodthirsty vampires (The Last Man on Earth), insane killer cultists (The Omega Man), or the rampant destruction of the globe via alien invasion (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!) and/or extraterrestrial object (Armageddon, Deep Impact). Some would argue that the story of isolation and the effort simply to exist is far more compelling than a bit of pyrotechnic mumbo jumbo. And then there are those who want to see the world suffer, to see it crack and devolve before their very eyes. Well, what if there was a way to experience both, to see a deeply personal, individualized take on the survivalist ideal while piling on the fright fiends and Judgment Day dynamics? Thanks to director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and The Beach fame) and his new horror classic 28 Days Later, we get to see what happens when pandemic events devastate all of London…all, that is, except for the "infected," a zombie-like multitude with an uncontrolled desire to kill and destroy.
Facts of the Case
A radical group of animal rights activists break into a laboratory seeking to "liberate" the simian population held within. But what they discover is far more disturbing. The monkeys have been "contaminated" with a man made inhibitor called "Rage," which is meant to unleash, uncontrollably, their inner anger and violence. When the rebels release the chimps, they are attacked and are infected. All it takes is the simple passing of the virus from one entity to another…through a tiny droplet of saliva…or a minute quantity of blood…
28 Days Later…
Jim, an injured bike courier, wakes up from a coma to discover that he has been abandoned in the hospital. As he wanders the corridors and makes his way out into the streets, he sees he is utterly alone. London is a ghost town. He enters a church seeking help. He sees a mass grave of dead bodies piled amongst the pews. He calls out, hoping for a response. And he gets one. A supposed corpse leaps to attention. Then another, eyes blood red. A priest breaks through a door and attacks him. Jim narrowly escapes and comes across Selena and Mark. They are two non-infected survivalists who battle the insane throng with fire and bombs. Once they are safe in an underground subway gift shop, Selena tells Jim the bad news: England has been overrun by a plague of zombie-like humans bent on murder and mayhem. They are known as "The Infected" and exist in a state of constant, pure homicidal rage. To survive, they must lie low and rely on each other to fight.
After a series of close calls and unavoidable losses, Jim and Selena meet Frank and his daughter Hannah. They live in a high rise flat and have tried to make the best of things. After days without word from the outside world, Frank picks up a message. There is a military base several hundred miles north where hope—and a cure—is offered. The group decides to risk the journey. Again, they face untold obstacles in getting to the location, but once there, things take a turn for the worse. The Infected roam the countryside and the military men seem suspect. Sanctuary now feels like a death sentence as they wait to see who will turn on them first: the diseased or the newly despotic.
Sometimes a hit film can force you into a mold in which you don't want to exist. For Danny Boyle, a hotshot British filmmaker known for kinetic, genre busting work, Trainspotting became both a badge of honor and a horrible albatross. Having received a fair amount of positive press for his work on the Hitchcockian thriller Shallow Grave, the terrifying, terribly comic take on heroin addiction in modern Scotland mixed sound, fury, and the filthiest toilet in England together in a fresh, inventive way. Suddenly, critics and crackpots alike gravitated to the work of this unlikely auteur and the buzz was big around him and his career.
Instead of taking the easy way out (he passed up the chance to direct the fourth Alien film), Boyle went on to explore film styles and types that he liked. He tried his hand at a post-ironic romantic comedy and came up with the universally reviled A Life Less Ordinary. He next took international megastar Leonardo DiCaprio and set him amongst a tropical commune filled with intrigue and betrayal. But even post-Titanic star power couldn't redeem The Beach. After a mere five years in the spotlight, he was already written off, a has-been who had squandered his chance at artistic merit by indulging in superficial vanity projects.
But Boyle apparently had something up his sleeve. Reverting back to his independent days, he created a low-budget, effectively fatalistic horror film about a man-made plague that wipes out humanity. Shot on digital video and released in Europe in 2002, it was a huge hit. Suddenly, Danny Boyle was a genius again. And for mostly valid reasons.
28 Days Later is not really a zombie movie in the traditional sense. One could honestly argue that it's not a living dead movie at all, since the disease, which renders mankind rabid, doesn't reduce its victims to blank faced slaughter machines with a thirst for blood and hunger for flesh. Society is not threatened by reanimated corpses, but by individuals infected with an illness that leaves them insanely angry and homicidal. The hordes here don't attack for food; they attack for fun. It's as if the lightning-fast infection burrows down deep into the archeological DNA we all carry and re-activates the hunter-gatherer gene in mega-spades. And the fact that one little drop of infected tissue, from salvia or a bleeding cut, can transform you in a matter of seconds significantly ups the anxiety ante.
28 Days Later establishes a new foothold in the whole end-of-the-world sci-fi fright flick extravaganza. It is a movie about a plague gone wild, an apocalyptic fable in the vein of The Stand, The Andromeda Strain, or 12 Monkeys. It does so without hardcore gore effects or shots of epic scope holocaust. At its core, this masterful but somewhat maddening movie shows us the more human side of annihilation, allowing its epic tale of the planet's possible end play out in small individual moments of quick, volatile rage. All hope may not be lost, but it seems to be available in ever decreasing supplies.
Director Boyle and writer Alex Garland use two different devices to keep the suspense level high in 28 Days Later, something that future cinematic shockers would do well to take notice of. First, they make it very clear, almost from the very beginning, that death and destruction can come at any time, from anywhere. There is no such thing as sanctuary (as a church filled with the infected freaks exemplifies), and just when you've come to trust a situation or person, horror can come crashing through a window or spray across the wall in a torrent of turmoil. Secondly, they make their "zombies" unconventional by turning up their rage and riot factors, removing the slow ambulatory security that comes in, say, Tom Savini's remake of the classic Night of the Living Dead. There the main character of Barbara merely saunters by the reanimated threat, as if taking a casual, if cautious walk. But the beast brood here is fast and furious. This has a profound effect on the narrative drive of the film. It places the audience on its guard and makes every scene one of potential dread and disaster. They then follow up on the premise and payoff handsomely with each new threat or assault. From running corpses engulfed in flames to the hacking to death of a newly infected friend, 28 Days Later makes its savage world sing with a shattering sense of the unexpected.
In a modern global community filled with AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, 28 Days Later functions as an admonitory reminder that technology alone can only take us so far. As important as they are, computers and mapping the human genome cannot save us from simple biological outbreaks or chemical warfare. The universe is comprised of billions of germs and untold undiscovered viruses, and yet we waltz around the planet, de-foresting habitats and exploring unreachable regions, all in the name of science and advancement. 28 Days Later tells us that somewhere along the line we're going to mess with something that knows how to fight back hard, and when faced with this threat, the only viable means of resistance will not be those wonderful futuristic conveniences, but the tools of our evolutionary ancestry: the knife, the club, the projectile. Part of the reason for the film's unrelenting sense of terror is the idea that we are left utterly defenseless, that in a country without ready access to weapons (you can hear Americans in the audience wondering why these Limeys aren't loaded for bear against the hyperactive hissy fitters), your wits and your wallop are far more important. Even at the end, we learn that the more flash and gun powdered the protection, the more impotent the safeguard becomes. Technology may ultimately be responsible for what happens in 28 Days Later, but it's funny that it doesn't hang around to try and sort the problem out.
At its heart, therefore, 28 Days Later is the story of man's will to survive, about what it takes to face the fear of extinction and fight like hell to keep it from happening. The bleak tone and even darker message of humans turning on themselves magnifies the hopelessness and turns a terrifying film into something much more uncomfortable. And if we sit back for a moment and argue that all monster movies are a reflection of their times and creators, 28 Days Later has a great deal to say about us. Sure, there is an endearing desire to continue on, to find a way to overcome and compete against the riot of raging victims. But toward the end of the movie, a character states that this new world—where person kills person for irrational, uncontrollably instinctual reasons—doesn't appear to be so different from what society was like pre-infection. Perhaps 28 Days Later is the ultimate crime nightmare, a metaphorical depiction of a world where the felonious element is unstoppable and unflappable, impossible to control or understand. Or maybe it wants to comment on man's reluctance to resolve his inner demons peacefully, always wanting to work out his psychological traumas on the battlefield or street gang turf. There is definitely a desire on the part of Boyle and Garland to make a solid point about the fall of organized society, but the anarchy in the UK result seems fuzzy in its final determination.
This goes to a very real aspect of 28 Days Later. This is far from a perfect film. Indeed, it wears its flaws proudly and provocatively. As with most movies of this genre, the cautionary example about man himself being more deadly that the undead denizens of destruction around him gets a tired repeat here. Like the biker gang who infiltrates the Mall of Solitude in Dawn of the Dead, the minute our survivors meet up with the military unit north of Manchester, you know we are about to see the terror turn inward. Too bad that the rationale for the soldier's redolent behavior is specious at best. When we hear what is about to happen to our heroes, especially the women, we wonder why the movie decided to take this turn, when better ones seem prevalent. Also, most fans of fierce, ferocious exercises in horror like their blood ladled on in huge buckets, not overcranked and strobe-lit artistic arterial sprays. There is good gore in 28 Days Later, but no great big globs of goo. In some instances, we don't mind not seeing everything; the technique provides more terror than an autopsy style glimpse of internal organs or dismembered body parts could ever inject. But to have a machete-wielding wild woman and a baseball bat-brandishing hero and to never once get a good look at their handiwork seems like a colossal gyp. This movie has tone and atmosphere aplenty (the opening sequences in a deserted London are memorable) but occasionally falls down where fans want it (and the body parts) to fly.
Despite its flaws, Boyle and Garland supply enough invention and insight to render 28 Days Later a real step forward in the zombie apocalypse genre. Many will still balk at calling this a living dead movie, and they are right. It's a living evil film. To make the movie as human as they do and yet never shy away from the ferocious nature of the beast waiting around every corner, to depict people as the ultimate threat to each other may be clichéd, but never before has the formula been so vicious. Their use of digital video adds a very vérité, realistic quality to the movie, even when the sequences are carefully storyboarded and choreographed. The minor image imperfections that a video element provides, everything from blurring to grain to pixelation, makes the experiment in cinema seem like a news broadcast from Judgment Day, a terrible transmission from a possible future shock. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which promised everything and delivered a post-teen temper tantrum for 90 minutes, the filmmakers here—obvious fans of the forefathers who destroyed the world before them—know how to keep an audience on the edge of their seat. Had they magnified the carnage and taken more chances with the narrative (perhaps avoiding the maniac military men all together), 28 Days Later would be a new modern classic, a film to move into the pantheon of the proud, like Dawn of the Dead or The Exorcist, but this unusual take on the zombie genre tempers too many of its outer trappings to be faultless.
Long available in a Region 2 disc, 20th Century Fox's release of this title in Region 1 is packed with capable goodies. They even add ancillary extras like animated storyboards and music videos to round out the retail value. But sound and vision are everything, and 28 Days Later gets a magnificent audio and visual presentation. Boyle and his crew created a real digitized apocalyptic design for their movie, and the video to film element presented here is spectacular. The colorization and CG used are never intrusive, and there is a real end of the world sense to the cinematography. The transfer captures it in all its startling clarity. Even more impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. This is a fully immersive experience: character dialogue travels around the room, the rear speakers crackle with low rumbles and eerie noises off in the distance, Infected attacks dive from channel to channel, and the musical cues in the soundtrack seem to whisper up from the ether. Overall, this is a very well done aural presentation, built specifically to place you in the middle of a repugnant Rapture.
If you like to hear from the filmmakers, then rejoice, as there is a lot of commentary on this disc: it appears everywhere, from the slide show photo galleries (where Boyle discusses the significance of having an on-set still photographer) to the deleted/alternative scenes. Gorehounds should take note: this DVD is not an unrated version of the film, nor is one offered. The additional film moments are small sequences cut for time, or ambitious bits removed because they could not be completed or incorporated properly. Again, Boyle adds his two cents over it all, and he's very informative and enlightening. But the best is the full-length commentary by Boyle and writer Alex Garland. The creators of 28 Days Later are chatty and exceedingly engaging. They point out the obvious homages to other horror directors (including their two direct "steals" from George Romero's Dead films) and explain their theories about why certain fright films work while others don't. As with any full-length commentary, minor details are discussed and production problems are identified. The explanation about how the deserted London and M1 motorway sequences were shot is fascinating. The intricacies on how they got away with threatening and terrorist-like tactics that would, today, never be allowed in a post-9/11 Britain are telling…and a little disconcerting.
Also special in a scary, near hysterical presentation is Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days Later. Less a treatise on how the film was made (the other extras more than cover this), the featurette goes out of its way to warn us that a scenario like that which occurs in the film is not just likely, it's probable. Scientists and scholars wax prophetically about the unknown viral and germ threats to our ever-evolving society, one even going so far as to say that a pandemic plague is a necessary aspect of Darwin's evolutionary theory and survival of the fittest. Watching the documentary before the film will divulge a few secrets to the storyline; viewing afterwards may make your sleepless night a lot worse.
Lastly, we are treated to three alternate endings. One could label them "Depressing," "The Chicken," and "Unfilmed." Without offering any spoilers, of the three offered, "Unfilmed" is the most intriguing. It avoids the military angle argued against before and goes to a more scientific game of cat and mouse. Recreated via storyboards and voice acting, this conclusion to the story is a tad pat, providing a resolution that is somewhat illogical, but for once we can see where the filmmakers thought the story could go. "Chicken" seems like the punchline to a joke someone forgot to set up. And "Depressing"? Well, it has its own issues, but for the movie that came before, its tone is perfect and perhaps would have worked better. Which leads to…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is some question as to what the original ending of this movie really is. If the happy version was the planned finale (and the commentary seems to hint that it is), then it's not as effective as the somber, defeatist one…or maybe that should be reversed. Films that give us hope must also wrestle it from us from time to time. Since we have faced the infection of favored characters throughout the movie, there is no need to avoid a depressing resolution. The filmmakers even agree in principle, commenting on how much they like the last brilliantly evocative shot from the "Depressing" finale (which sets up a geek friendly, girl power, butt-kicking sequel as well). An upbeat last few moments of the film seems to undermine the entire movie's purpose. There is not enough done with the quarantine thread to make it as easily wrapped up as it would like to be. While there are a couple of great shots during this traditional ending (The Infected starving to death is truly gruesome), it doesn't seem to fit the tone and texture of the preceding hour and a half. 28 Days Later uses that title too literally and, perhaps, one too many times.
Danny Boyle cannot be praised enough for trying something new within such a well-loved fan-fanatic genre as the zombie/apocalyptic horror film. True, 28 Days Later is not 100% successful, but when compared to other independent (or big budget) attempts at rewriting the living dead niche, it's less of a video game and more of a personally moving motion picture. It gets its dread and despair down perfectly, and isn't afraid to amplify the threat when necessary. There is something compact and contained about the film, with just enough of a ring of truth to turn a "what if" into a "when." Indeed, 28 Days Later's greatest gift to the world of fright is the notion of possibility. No matter how they swing it, a zombie film always exists in a strange realm of ridiculousness. Someone like Romero or Fulci can make us experience uneasy fear and an insomniac's imagining of what it would be like to face down a group of the living dead, but in the end it is easy to scoff at reanimated death since we know it's not within the realm of our possible experience. But when something like SARS starts to spread, causing panic and finger pointing, the likelihood of a RAGE infestation style scenario seems all the more real. Whether you like your Armageddon filled with flying saucers or screaming with the hunger of a million monsters, 28 Days Later will give you something much closer to home…and much more unsettling.
28 Days Later is found not guilty and is free to go. Danny Boyle is also acquitted of all charges. Screenwriter Alex Garland, however, is sentenced to 28 days of probation for taking the militaristic turn in the narrative, taking an inventive film out of the living dead realm and into something more mundane and less menacing.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Danny Boyle and Writer Alex Garland
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