28 days later

bobby bachman



Nobody can say we haven't had enough zombies. After the massive, breakout success of The Walking Dead and a steady stream of mainstream movies, including blockbuster action films like World War Z, America has had quite the fair share of Zombies in the 21st century. In the modern age, where we're too desensitized to be scared of the walking flesh buckets, they are mostly just tools for comedy ("Look at the zombie running on a treadmill!") or sudden bursts of horrifying gore ("Oh my God, he's spitting his intestines out of his nose!") This formula, in films like Zombieland, doesn't present much depth or meaning, but can be a lot of bloody fun.


Of course, every critic and fan will tell you that the greatest zombie movies achieve much more than that; zombies, in the hands of the right filmmakers, are capable of brilliantly satirizing our culture, horrifying us deep to our cores and making grand, often uncomfortable statements about human nature. Classics like Dawn of the Dead and its companion parody piece Shaun of the Dead do a brilliant job of this. However, there's one zombie film that manages to accomplish everything, inspiring the highest shrieks, wringing out the most tears and providing the most chilling, accurate insight into the way human beings act with no government.


That film is 28 Days Later, written by Alex Garland, directed by Danny Boyle and first released in 2002. Doubling as horror film and nuanced social critique, the prologue of the film takes place in a research facility, where primates are being infected with a new virus called rage, which turns the infected into zombies. Despite the loudest, most desperate pleas from a petrified man in a lab coat, a group of animal rights activists forcefully free the chimps from their cages, inadvertently unleashing the end of the world as we know it.


Twenty-eight days after this all begins, a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital to discover that the once bustling city of London has become a decrepit, lifeless wasteland. He joins a small group of survivors, led by Selena (Naomie Harris) and eventually including genial father Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and 13 year-old Hannah (Megan Burns). Devoid of resources and with little idea what has happened to their country, they make their way to a military compound, where a pre-recorded radio broadcast tells them society will re-emerge. Frank, a former cab driver, drives them down a series of deserted highways, and for a little while, it seems like things aren't so bad after all. Watching them lay in an empty field telling jokes almost makes you forget you're watching a zombie movie.


It helps that 28 Days Later is light on the gore, but even without it, the final act gives us some of the darkest scenes in the history of zombie movies. The main group finally reaches the military shelter, staying with them, even attending dinner at a large, fancy table. It is here, however, when they learn of the soldier's true intentions: raping Selena and Hannah, repopulating the earth and hiding out until the zombies starve. The commander of the compound, Major West (Christopher Eccleston) justifies this by virtue of "everyone else is doing it;" he has a theory, later proven correct, that the rage virus, responsible for the Zombie epidemic, has only affected England, and that they are being quarantined so that they can die alone on the island while the rest of the world stays safe.


His words in these scenes echo millions of Americans who build bomb shelters in their backyards and stock up on food and guns, just in case the government decides it wants to strike back against their rights. Humans are not savage animals; it's only logical to unlock the cage and release us from this prison. This was the same thought process the activists had when they released the chimps and started everything. They never stop to think that the rules of society are in place for a reason, or that being inside these cages may be necessary for the greater good of mankind. So long as they succeed, nothing else seems to matter.


Major West makes a point of observing that people in desperate situations will do anything necessary to survive, whether it is raping women to keep the bloodline going or murdering anyone who expresses skepticism of their ideas. It's ruthless, it's appalling, but somewhere deep down we recognize, instinctively, that, in the same situation, we may not be as morally clean as we'd have ourselves believing. Part of the genius of the film is in the way it doesn't paint the soldiers, or even Major West, as villains, but as extensions of human behavior. Because we are also human, we understand why they're doing this, and we perhaps spend much of the film wondering what circumstances would force us into the same position. They are horrible people responsible for committing several disgusting, unforgivable acts, but who's to say that, in similar circumstances, we wouldn't be doing the same?


From a director's perspective, Boyle clearly takes a great deal from the original zombie films of George Romero, specifically from Night of the Living Dead. At the time, many critics noted that Night, with its grainy black and white images, resembled a wartime newsreel, not unlike the ones that updated the American public on the efforts in Vietnam. 28 Days Later updates this style for the 21st century and indirectly cites real-world events. Filmed on digital camcorders at the time mostly used for documentaries, and filming largely without lights or sets, every single frame gives off the impression that zombies actually have destroyed Britain. In a handful of brilliant opening scenes, Jim wanders through the empty streets of London, and we immediately realize they are the actual streets of London. The whole way through, we're right beside Jim as he searches through the rubble for survivors. Every so often he stumbles across a row of missing persons flyers, which, in addition to the rubble, makes us American viewers shutter as we flashback to the horrifying events of one particular September morning in New York.

The film doesn't feel "cinematic" in any conventional sense; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle keeps the images grainy and the lighting naturalistic, while Boyle crams the actors into small rooms and tight spaces, giving almost every scene a sense of claustrophobia. Even on the fourth or fifth viewing, I found myself squirming around in a few scenes.


Like Night of the Living Dead the acting of the main group contains no flourishes, and their British accents don't sound anything like your usual British movie characters. There's something mundane and down-to-earth, almost gritty about the way they speak, because they never speak for the camera, the way most movie actors do. They're speaking to each other, and if you can't understand them, well then that's your own problem. Although several cast members, particularly Murphy and Harris, went on to enormous fame and critical recognition, most were unknown at the film's release in 2002, and this lends it credibility. These are the sort of people you see every day when you walk into Wawa, the kinds you ride the bus with on your way to work; frankly, the kinds you would expect to survive a zombie apocalypse with.


A lot of people have a habit of dismissing zombie movies as trite, empty entertainment in the same vein as high-budget action movies, offering no insight into society and doing nothing more than indulging in our personal power fantasies. If there were ever any greater proof that this statement is not only wrong but dead wrong, it would be 28 Days Later. It makes you well up, it makes you think, it disturbs you, it excites you, it satisfies you, and you come out of it with an unforgettably dark impression of human beings, society, and our own impulses. Most people watching it will treat its subjects like standard movie villains and distance themselves from any accusations that we might have something in common with the evil, sadistic soldiers. "I'm nothing like that, I would never do the things those guys do." How do you know? When the actual zombie apocalypse comes, you might be shocked at what you discover about yourself, even if the evidence has always been right in front of you.


View trailer of 28 Days Later

Robert "Bobby" Bachman is a Sophomore at Cabrini. An English Major with a Concentration in Film & Media Studies, he aspires towards being a filmmaker with the fame of Steven Spielberg and the emotional, avant-garde instincts of Paul Thomas Anderson. Or maybe just having a few slices of pizza and writing a story would be all right.