I’ve always enjoyed the work of the British director Danny Boyle. Despite being somewhat discontinuous, he has directed some truly remarkable films such as Trainspotting which made him famous in 1996, and has already won an Oscar with his Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which in total received eight Academy statuettes. But in my opinion his top 3 includes, along with Trainspotting, the underrated Sunshine (2007) and the film reviewed here: 28 Days Later (2002).
28 Days Later is one of the best zombie movies ever made, even if technically it doesn’t feature zombies, but infected. It’s a bit like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): there are no zombies, but the gang members act like a horde of undead against those barricaded in the precinct. Danny Boyle’s infected even look like zombies as they feed on human flesh and are covered in blood from head to toe. And they run. A lot! Even more than the zombies in The Return of the Living Dead by Dan O’Bannon!
Let’s briefly summarize the plot first. Jim (the great Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma in a deserted hospital that apparently was abandoned in a hurry. He goes out and begins to wander in a deserted London where he finds evidence of a disaster which happened about a month earlier, some kind of infection of immense proportions. After a while some strange noises alarm Jim, who’s very weak due to the many days spent in bed, and just when some bloodthirsty creatures are about to catch him, he’s saved by Selena and Mark (Naomie Harris and Noah Huntley) who wear some sort of improvised riot gear. The two explain to him the situation: a deadly virus spread very quickly through the country infecting most of the population. The infected are now beings who feed on living flesh and that should be avoided at all costs.
Jim, shocked, asks to go to his parents’ home and sadly discovers that the two committed suicide at the beginning of the outbreak. During the night the infected attack: Mark gets injured and Selena doesn’t think twice about finishing him with her machete: the virus acts very quickly and soon Mark would have tried to feed on Selena and Jim! The next day, the two meet Frank and his daughter Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) and together they decide to leave the city to go to a military base near Manchester that is welcoming survivors, or at least that’s what a radio message says. Once there, though, things don’t go exactly as expected…
This film is amazing. Those who say that the zombie genre was reborn after the horrible remake of Dawn of the Dead made by the incompetent Zack Snyder in 2004 forget the box office success of 28 Days Later two years before ($85 million earned against a budget of just 8 million)! Danny Boyle used intelligently his money and shot this low-budget horror digitally with a number of over exposed shots and a massive use of hand-held camera. The idea is to treat the viewer as a survivor and make him stand next to Jim and his companions, deprive him of the comfort which goes with the role of passive observer and instead have him participate in the action. The idea works perfectly! The film is extremely tense and the watching experience is nothing short of shocking! Also, George Romero taught us that a zombie movie shouldn’t look “good”, but should rather feel dirty!
The spectacular soundtrack by John Murphy (who has collaborated several times with Boyle) helps a lot, with the main theme relentlessly building up tension that makes it impossible to remain calm while watching the movie. Still, it should be said that Danny Boyle did a great job on the director’s chair! For instance, the initial scenes of Jim’s awakening in the hospital and of his wandering through the empty city center captured with lots of Dutch angle shots (the camera, that is the viewer, is as disoriented and lost as Jim) immediately defines the mood of the movie. The film is obscure, tense, and there’s little room for hope and good feelings.
Despite that, in the central part of the movie there are good feelings: Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah quickly become the family that Jim lost so suddenly. But when the soldiers led by the evil Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) enter the stage things get very serious. The military are much worse than the infected! The latter at least are purely guided by instinct. Following George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), Boyle depicts the military as unscrupulous human beings who don’t hesitate to use the violence that they know so well (they’re trained to use it) exclusively for their own purposes, their own well-being. Once the society collapsed, they feel compelled to be in charge due to a hypothetical law of the strongest. Boyle doesn’t take long to make us understand what he thinks of these people thanks the splendid last act and Jim’s revenge!
And if the ending leaves room for a bit of optimism, it shouldn’t be forgotten that initially Jim wasn’t supposed to survive, making the film even more bleak than it currently is (the alternative ending is contained in the DVD edition I own, which also includes the honest sequel, 28 Weeks Later, directed in 2007 by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo). The choice of having Jim survive highlights again (after the development of the relationship between Jim and Frank) the theme of the family and, more in general, of the importance of the people close to us in a society which is hostile both before and after the zombie outbreak. In short, and as it’s always the case in a good zombie movie, the whole thing is just an excuse to talk about humanity, friendship and emotions like aggression and affection… this is not a stupid movie at all! Ciao!