DAYS LATER (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
One of the most common themes in science fiction and horror is the notion of a sole survivor, or a small band of survivors, trying to deal with the end of the world as they know it. Both books and movies have told tales of a world where those who are still alive face numerous and usually bloodthirsty hardships after the complete and total breakdown of society. Among these stories is Danny Boyle's post-apocalyptic pseudo-zombie movie 28 Days Later. First released in the United Kingdom in 2002 before coming to the United States in the summer of 2003, it hit theaters at a time when people were deathly afraid of catching SARS or bird flu, getting a letter full of anthrax in the mail, or that terrorist organizations might be developing biochemical weapons. I've often said that many of the best horror films of the new millennium have come from outside America, and Boyle's vision of a world that has been ravaged by a lab-engineered disease is a film that reinforces that.
Our story opens in a Cambridge research facility, where a group of animal activists have broken in to free a group of chimpanzees from one of the facility's laboratories. Their handler disrupts things, begging them not to screw around with the chimps because they're infected with a highly contagious virus named "Rage." The activists don't really care, so ignore his warnings and opens up one of the cages. A chimpanzee leaps out and starts raising some pissed-off monkey hell, and we cut to black.
Things pick up four weeks after the previous scene, where we meet Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who awakens from a coma, only to find that the entire hospital has been deserted. He cracks open some vending machines for a little food, then starts roaming the streets of London. Unfortunately, London more closely resembles a ghost town than a bustling European metropolis, and Jim doesn't know why. His only clue is a newspaper bearing headlines about mass hysteria and chaos throughout the country. Jim is assaulted by a group of loonies after trying to take refuge in a church, and flees out into the street with quite a few people following him. They chase him to a gas stations, where he is saved by two masked people flinging Molotov cocktails.
Jim's saviors lead him to their shelter in the subway, introducing themselves as Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris). They explain to him that while he was comatose, the Rage virus spread uncontrollably throughout England, and is rumored to have spread to Paris and New York City. Those that are infected have about thirty seconds before they become red-eyed, blood-slobbering psychopaths with the single-minded urge to leap at the nearest uninfected person and kill them.
Desperate to reunite with his loved ones, Jim demands to go to his parents' house to check on them, and after a mild argument, Mark and Selena eventually agree to accompany them. But upon arriving, Jim sadly discovers that his parents have committed suicide. The trio decides to spend the night in Jim's parents' house before regrouping in the morning, but when Jim goes to the kitchen for a midnight snack, he's jumped by two infected people. Mark and Selena save the day, but in the struggle, one of the infected leaves a pretty nasty scratch on Mark's arm. Convinced he'll become infected too, Selena makes quick work of him with her machete. Our trio now down to two, Jim and Selena hit the road the next morning.
In their search for shelter, they stumble upon a teddy bear of a guy named Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Frank and Hannah welcome the weary travelers to their apartment, offering a place to rest their heads for the night. They eventually happen upon a pre-recorded radio broadcast made by a group of soldiers, claiming that they have an answer to the infection and directing any survivors to a checkpoint near Manchester. Despite their reservations about the broadcast's legitimacy, the four decide to make the two-day road trip across England. They arrive at the checkpoint and rendezvous with the soldiers and their commanding officer, Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), but little do the four survivors know that they the infected aren't the only dangerous things out there.
When 28 Days Later was released in the United States, a blurb from British tabloid the Daily Mail was used as one of the film's taglines, proclaiming in big bold letters that the movie was "scary as hell." That might be a bit hyperbolic, but that's not to say that 28 Days Later isn't a terrifying movie. It is a movie that is thoroughly engrossing, a brilliant twist on both post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror and the zombie sub-genre. However, as great a horror movie it is, it's also an excellent character study of how those who have survived the end of the world would interact with one another; it concentrates on the characters just as much as it does the plight ailing them.
Director Danny Boyle does a fantastic job, especially when you consider the movie had a modest budget and was filmed with digital camcorders. Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle don't let these restrictions hinder their work, instead using them in their favor to create a sort of hyperreality. The events depicted appear to float somewhere between fantasy and reality; the shots of the gorgeous English countryside and Jim's voyage through an abandoned London take on a dreamlike, almost ethereal quality, which only serves to make the violence that much more jarring and nightmarish. This feeling is aided by the shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing during the action sequences. I normally complain about this sort of thing, as I do get sick of it in many cases, but Boyle makes it work. The shakiness assists the action onscreen, as it gives us a feeling of being right there amidst the terror. Boyle is also assisted by the absolutely amazing music composed by John Murphy. Murphy's score alternates between ambient noise an a melodic rock-styled sound, which greatly enhances the atmosphere Boyle works so hard to create. And when combined with songs performed by underground post-rock musicians like Brian Eno and Godspeed You Black Emperor, the music adds a certain haunting beauty to the visuals.
Alex Garland's screenplay is very good, as well. As I said above, the movie concentrates more on the characters and how they handle the situations that they face. Garland gives us a look into human nature, at how some people will try to survive at any cost, while others try simply surviving. That's what makes the movie so frightening, because I doubt everyone who survives a catastrophe like the one depicted in 28 Days Later will want to play nice. Get a band of those with the "survive at any cost" mentality together, and they could be just as bad as whatever caused the problems to begin with. It's very similar to the "soldiers vs. scientists" idea behind George Romero's seminal zombie movie Day of the Dead, while the four protagonists regrouping, enjoying having the whole country to themselves, and even going on a shopping spree very much recalls another Romero classic, Dawn of the Dead. And although the infected may not be zombies in the conventional undead sense, they're still used in a very Romero-esque style to make a commentary about society. And all in all, I believe Garland did an excellent job.
The ensemble cast is also worth some praise. Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris are both consistently entertaining as their characters evolve throughout the movie. Jim and Selena's character arcs seem as if they're as different as night and day, with Selena going from a jaded fighter to someone happy to be alive at all, while Jim's arc is quite the opposite. Murphy and Harris handle their characters with ease, so I'm not surprised that they've started getting roles in big American movies in the wake of 28 Days Later's success. Megan Burns is entertaining in a less-than-challenging role, and veteran character actors Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston are both fantastic. Gleeson is quite amiable as Frank, making him someone we believe truly cares for his daughter, and someone whose ultimate fate really strikes an emotional chord with the viewer. Eccleston is also very much worth mentioning, as his progression from way too cordial to a total sleazebag is both credible and unsettling.
28 Days Later, as I noted above, does draw comparisons to George Romero's zombie movies, but it is likewise in the vein of similar stories like The Omega Man, George Stewart's novel Earth Abides, and the classic Twilight Zone episode "Where Is Everybody?". And while the movie doesn't give us anything that we haven't seen before, it is something we haven't seen in a while. It's strong, smart, never relenting or insulting its audience by cheating its way out of things. 28 Days Later isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it was sheer brilliance, with intense direction and music, solid acting, and an intelligent script. And because of all that, I'm giving it four and a half stars and a Sutton At The Movies seal of approval. Go check it out.
Final Rating: ****½