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28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle

review by Paul Higson

Whilst Dog Soldiers and My Little Eye (both 2002) were winners, the former did load both barrels of the shotgun with cartridges of comedy and horror, and the latter was too surface American, in order to say what now can be said about 28 Days Later, the British horror film has returned with a bloody and uncompromising vengeance.
   Animal liberationists free chimpanzees infected with a modified strain of the ebola virus relabelled 'Rage' and with an infection turnover of 20 seconds it is only a matter of weeks to oblivion. Motorcycle courier and hit and run victim Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes out of a coma on the 28th day to find a nasty new world awaiting, a hospital staff member having shown him the small consideration of locking him in his room and pushing the key under the door. He has awakened into a stranded, deserted London. The signs are ominous, upturned buses and a message board for loved lost ones, a la September 11th, erected about the statue of Eros (nice touch, that!) and graffiti that reads: "Repent! The end is extremely fucking nigh!" A church congregation of huddled corpses and the lethal infected leads to a first encounter with other survivors who educate him in the cold rules for survival in this grim environment. Several violent episodes later, the surviving Jim and Selena (Naomie Harris), a hard-bitten, collected and feisty med grad student meet with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) a father and daughter, residing high above the horror but certainly not untouched by both the threat and the increasingly depressing consequences, but both hanging on to a hope of escape from the city. Their intention is to follow directions given out on a pre-recorded broadcast in rolling transmission telling of a military unit with an answer to the catastrophe and they are based 28 miles North East of a burning Manchester.
   The kind of person that on average enlists voluntarily into the armed forces being a bigoted, sexist, gun-happy idiot, I may have left London with them but keen to persuade them against routing out the group that turns out to be down to its last nine men and living up to the worst of barracks traits. In a stately home and its grounds, the final battle takes place between the evacuees, the soldiers with their twisted plans for a new beginning and the infected flesh-crazed Mancunians driven out of the city by the fires, in a full-throttle, kill-crazy, moon-stomp rampage from room to room all of a rainstorm and lightning lashed night.
   Alex Garland, novelist behind the backpacker favourites The Beach and The Tesseract has confessed, "I always work from genre, then try to subvert that genre," going on to admit to multitudinous points of reference with the original screenplay for 28 Days Later encompassing Romero's Dead trilogy, Wyndham's triffids apocalypse, the body horror rampages of Cronenberg, Matheson's I Am Legend and several upturned world and mankind scenarios and pastoral blips from the works of J.G. Ballard. But if there is too much overt reference it can threaten and cancel out the achieved acts of subversion, insisting that equal parts reference and successful subversion must be met.
   Thus arises the foremost problem with 28 Days Later, the nods are too heavily laid out, the debt to others town-cried out, though the fellow chiefly indebted is George A. Romero with a poorly disguised love by Garland for Dawn Of The Dead (1979), something that Boyle in his opposition to direct homage would have fought more vehemently against had he the geek familiarity to genre films that his guest celebrity scriptwriter had. A supermarket episode of humorous one-stop shopping to chirpy music and mucho chuckles and a pause for fuel for Frank's cab (in lieu of the helicopter from Dawn Of The Dead) at a motorway café (subbing for the private airstrip in Pennsylvania) including an attack by a dentures snapping, infected child bring the plotting of the Romero epic home as does Henry (Christopher Eccleston) the army captain's jeep cab episode with the amok assailing the vehicle. The Romero connection runs on with the naked flesh-eaters coming out from the trees, the father and daughter survivors plucked from Romero's unbeatable infection romp The Crazies (1972) and in the courtyard can be found a substitute Bub (as in Day Of The Dead, 1985) two-day gone infected soldier, in uniform chained to the wall by a collar, awaiting his cue to move on the house and begin merry hell on his former comrades. Add to these other outside reminders in the BBC's 1970s' shockers Survivors and Changes, Ranald MacDougall's The World, The Flesh And The Devil (1959), Quatermass and the comic strip 'Kid's Rule OK!' that became banned and contributed to the heavy censoring of the 1970s' boys' comic, Action.
   Further problems arrive in the apparent product placement though that may be as equally unavoidable as my repeating of brand names by example here. The London episode should have paid for itself in plugs for canned drinks and chocolate, though the film is a temporal victim of it also. A promotional comic strip accompanying the release proposes that day 14 of the infection falls on Friday, 18th October 2002, confirming the intended release date in the present day. One commonly sits down to apocalyptic horror fare resembling the day to imagine it as the near future. Alas, when the hoarding advertisement for United Colours of Benetton is identifiably a year old and the Lotto is still here and there found in the camera's roving as the National Lottery, the gaffe is blown and the viewer has to readjust once again, which is never good. It does not help that around the same screen time Jim enters the church full of decaying corpses with no nose clamping or emetics, yet the smell of putrescence from two bodies later puts everyone close to retching before they have successfully mounted the stairs for the bedroom in which the bodies lie.
   Jim is often too stunned, not enough reaction to the death, mutilation, cadavers of kin and carnage, not even a delayed action shock episode. The makers also shoot themselves in the foot by delivering the greatest shock early in the film when Selena unreservedly turns on the most familiar of her companions before the imminent transformation from infection can take place, he having been bitten, she violently hacking him to pieces with a machete. No matter what the justification so early into our submersion into this drastic new world if I had been Jim I would have been fleeing through the patio windows. This is an action horror for the lads primarily and they are expected to identify with awkward, simple and ordinary Jim, the beautiful, lithe Selena their Eve. The results are twofold; a jittery sexually prone self-endangerment tug-of-war for the male, a tension that holds throughout but also the superseding of the shock value of anything the infected can then deliver.
   As detracting as all this might be the action is rollicking, the characters are genuine and worth caring about. The device of having factions works its usual treat for the boys and the ballsy, retaliatory activities of Selena provide something for the overgrown Buffys. Shot using domestic mini-digital handheld cameras that can be bought at �400 there is the immediacy that the medium brings aided by the editor's self-instructed mantra of delivering something that reflects the fictional situation, the 'anarchic' and the 'dynamic', of which Chris Gill has provided a job superbly done.
   The shuffling dead have been replaced by the hurtling anthropophagi though this again is hardly a first. In writer John Russo and director Dan O'Bannon's EC-style The Return Of The Living Dead (1985), the second branch sequel to the Romero and Russo original, audiences at the time were thrown and startled by the hyperactive corpses, as indeed were they in Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) and Umberto Lenzi's 1980 film Nightmare City (aka: Incubo Sullo Cittá Contaminata), that also took in a virus that rapidly turned its victims into rampant, urgent flesh-eaters.
   28 Days Later supersedes all pre-concepts and faults by its determination and drive, technical skill and stylised camerawork. It's fast and means to terrorise but the blind rage that forces those teeth into victims is no match for the brutal deliberation in Selena's machete attack. The other great flesh crawling moment again does not directly involve the infected but a hoard of rats fleeing the accursed furies as the rodent hoard race over the heroes in a running carpet of fur and claws. A Manchester in the distance and in flames is well timed given the current threats of strike action from the fire service and is oddly familiar for someone who once resided in an attic flat in Higher Broughton and witnessed a bonfire night there. The containment of the plague to the island of Great Britain is unrealistic given the swift nature of the retrovirus' ability to spread and the frequency of transport in and out of the UK, that America might escape it; but then, that would be one sure way of playing up to a State side audience. It also puts paid to a running theme of nature reclaiming itself from mankind. As the righteous sergeant from the troop puts the old chestnut, man's existence is but a speck in this planet's history, adding "if the infection wipes us out then that will be a return to normal." The city is at nature's mercy, while in the countryside wind machines continue to turn and generate with Ma Nature's permission. In a revisit to the old gag - see Motel Hell (1980) and Batman Returns (1992) - there is a flash image on green hills, the word 'hell' written in white, a subliminal momentary false omen shortly to be made clever sense of and bring the film to a satisfying close.
   The joy in this film is in the details, the thrill and the consistency of interest; never is there a dull moment. Whatever 28 Days Later's failings, like Dog Soldiers and My Little Eye, it makes up for them plentifully, and should appeal to those seeking the rare satisfaction of an honest exploiter and a kick of Brit horror nostalgia threaded through with the ugly new.
28 Days Later
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