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28 Days Later (Happy Halloween)

October 31, 2016

In 2002, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland unleashed 28 Days Later upon an unsuspecting public. This low-budget zombie outbreak thriller is arguably the impetus for the collective fascination with zombies that has festered ever since, cresting with TV’s The Walking Dead. 

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While the first Resident Evil adaptation hit theaters a few months before 28 Days Later, it was the latter that forged a new path for screen zombies. It was also the first to feature running zombies. Not just running zombies, but sprinting, infected rage-beasts. These more dangerous iterations instantly became much scarier than the cuddly-by-comparison zombies of George A. Romero’s revered saga that had been kicking around for the past several decades.

Though not really zombies in the traditional sense, but humans (possibly still somewhat alive?) infected by an incurable rage-inducing virus, the parallels for these new and improved deadites are strong enough to defy nitpickery. They bite, they scratch, they flail, and any resulting contact with exposed blood, saliva, unshielded corneas, etc., means for a rapid and ugly end (if you’re not ripped limb-from-limb first that is). For an IRL analog, imagine a naked person running at you full speed. To what lengths would you go to avoid getting the naked on you? If said naked person really wanted to make an uncomfortable amount of naked contact with you, then to what extent would you even be able to prevent it? Yeah, scary.

Danny Boyle, best known at the time for Trainspotting (1996), came to the project through his relationship with Alex Garland, who had written the novel upon which Boyle’s previous film, The Beach (2000), was based. Boyle has always shown great style as a director, as well as a chameleonic ability to take on diverse subject matter (also see 2008’s Slumdog Millionsaire and 2015’s Steve Jobs). In 28 Days Later, that style meant taking on a low fidelity, bootleggy, digital video look. While budget considerations (a reported $8 million) and a guerilla-style shooting schedule may have necessitated such an unpolished look, the aesthetic adds considerably to the film. The production manages an unexpectedly timeless look and feel, one that captures how you might expect a first-hand account of such an incident to look.

Boyle was immensely successful in conveying the hopelessness of waking up in a world that has apparently emptied out while you were sleeping. The shots around trash-strewn, abandoned London are simply haunting. It is a feat of low-budget production that the crew managed all of those empty-street shots during the slivers of early dawn, with just a few minutes at a time to shoot, and with very minimal assistance from official police roadblocks. Much of the movie feels like a documentary—stolen by a terrified onlooker, no doubt. The blandness of the image quality even lulls viewers just enough that a few scattered handheld zombie-POV shots give the film a nasty jolt. Just exemplary film-making all around.

The film boasts a small but stalwart cast including then-relatively-unknowns Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, supported by the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccelston. All gifted actors, they have no problem carrying out the hopeless scenario into which they have been thrust. That hope somehow emerges in the form of basic human relationships and the desire for a future, even as the story takes one nightmarish turn after another, must be credited to the actors.

For all the impact this movie has had, the potent hospital sequence at the beginning of the film has arguably become legendary for something it didn’t do. While the scene bears strong visual resemblance to 2010’s pilot for The Walking Dead, the scene from AMC’s flagship program was developed independently from and almost simultaneously with 28 Days Later, according to Robert Kirkman, showrunner and scribe of the original comic book. You see ideas get copied and repurposed all the time. It’s just kind of amazing and inexplicable that the same lightning bolt essentially struck two rods at the same time.

Fourteen years later, 28 Days Later feels as timely as ever. At the time, the eerily empty streets and “missing person” flyers unintentionally evoked 9/11 (the film was shot prior to the tragedy). With more recent events in mind, 28 Days Later feels angry, politically-charged though not concentrated in any one direction. The blame for the outbreak ostensibly lies with the activists, but it’s coupled with the implicit retort that those in charge of the laboratory had forced their hand. Panic in the streets; detritus piling up. The squeezing of the middle class recounted in a man’s story about how his family took out all of their cash in hopes of bribing their way onto plane, but to no avail. A palpable sense of having to fend for oneself; that no help is coming (not to mention the queasy treatment of an infected black man). Despite being British-made, the unrelenting bleakness of 28 Days Later echoes the chaos of the United States’ current election cycle. 28 Days Later is loaded with potential triggers and remains ripe for allegory.

Zombie movies have pretty much always served as allegory, but unlike some, 28 Days Later is not strictly of its time. For the density and force of its ideas, for its reconfiguration of zombie terror, and for its sheer thrill factor, 28 Days Later stands tall as a modern horror classic, and an archetypal zombie film.

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