28 Days Later
Reviewed in June 2003
Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, Marvin Campbell. Screenplay: Alex Garland.

Photo © 2003 Fox Searchlight Pictures
The only movie I have seen by the British director Danny Boyle is his career-maker, Trainspotting, which I caught during its U.S. theatrical release the better part of a decade ago. The ensuing years have not been kind to Boyle, or at least that's what one hears. His mordant debut, Shallow Grave, remains a cult favorite, but the would-be road comedy A Life Less Ordinary polarized viewers with its sardonic humor and graphic violence, and the hell-is-other-people parable The Beach, based on a novel I did not especially enjoy, was received even more dispassionately.

Given such an unenviable career path—Boyle has started to feel like a has-been, even to filmgoers like me who haven't seen his movies—I might be forgiven for seeing the lead character of 28 Days Later as a stand-in for its director during the opening reels. After a horrifying prologue, in which zealous advocates of animal rights unleash a pack of infected lab-monkeys from their kennels, the proper narrative begins as Jim, played by Cillian Murphy, wakes up naked, 28 days later, in an empty, ransacked hospital. This hirsute, emaciated fellow—he looks, shall I say it, like a zombie—wanders into downtown London expecting crowds, noise, and traffic, but finds nothing. The world has dried up, emptied out. The party has died (or has a problem evaporated?). Danny Boyle, the fallen wunderkind, may know how this feels.

Soon enough, the movie almost literally erupts into its central storyline, and darker symmetries to our own world assert themselves. From that point, they never let go. When Jim finally, after much shuffling about, encounters some living people, they are red-streaked, raving assailants. Maybe hell really does have no fury like a woman scorned, but the starving, clawing, blood-vomiting, indefatigable monsters of 28 Days Later might have forced Mr. Congreve to a different conclusion. Jim, seemingly amnesiac but sure he doesn't remember this, outruns the creatures long enough to hook up with Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), two other survivors who have taken a caged-off Underground newsstand as their castle-keep. These stranded prey eventually meet more living people—the virulent plague that has consumed London is never named as anything more specific than blood-borne "rage"—but their own number dwindles in the face of ceaseless, predatory attack. Rarely are more than three or four people alive and healthy at one time in 28 Days Later, until the hardiest souls eventually reach a military compound that has walled, fenced, and fortressed itself into an old country estate outside of burning, vandalized Manchester. Within this citadel, however, new aggressions consume the survivors, and suddenly the characters we know the best are besieged on multiple fronts—up to and including the ferocious compulsions of their own worn-down, volatile psyches, which make them nearly as savage as the mindless hunters outside.

28 Days Later, by around the midpoint of 2003, emerges as one of the best and one of the timeliest pictures of the year. Admittedly, these claims should only be offered with clear caveats. From the standpoint of artistic quality, it has been a singularly dreadful year for movies; from that of timeliness, contemporary global life has by now entered such a barbaric state that any cinematic vision of horror has already been met halfway by our own self-betrayals. The epidemic biology of 28 Days Later's central threat rhymes most obviously with the biochemical weapons purportedly stashed in Iraq (and much more clearly harbored elsewhere), the outbreaks of SARS and monkeypox, and the worsening onslaught of AIDS on all continents. Yet the film's images of faceless, holistic horror, an impulse toward depraved destruction that betrays any positive self-image humanity might preserve for itself, ties in just as closely with the mad, rebellious warfares in central and Western Africa, the uncurbed civil violence in South American capitals, the eviscerations of regional economies wrought each week by corporate capitalism, and the brazen martial chutzpah of America and its allies.

In other words, the reason 28 Days Later works so well right now is because its murderous lunatics resonate symbolically with not just one evil afoot in the world, but with a breeding host of evils that seem less and less distinguishable from each other. Even positive reviews of the film have tended to balk at the "surprises" in the third act, when the protective machinery of military force betrays its own bloodthirst, and where the concerted rape and exploitation of women is touted as a pragmatic necessity, if not a tool of war. Meanwhile, the Taliban are gone, but are the women of Afghanistan moving freely? American soldiers have dutifully followed orders in Iraq, but have they themselves been protected by their highest-up commanders? The hypercapabilities of the Korean, Indian, and Pakistani militaries—and, need it be said, many others besides—are fueling distress rather than fighting it. Aside from a botched epilogue, which seems clearly tacked-on to soften the film's thud of hopelessness, it's hard for me to see where 28 Days Later makes any tonal or ideological mistakes.

With all this context driving the film's impact, who cares if Danny Boyle, his returning screenwriter Alex Garland, or any of the filmmakers involved in 28 Days Later were conscious or overt in posing these analogies? The sick shock of watching humanity turn on itself—and the film is finally unable to tell us how widely the terror has spread—registers as a timely reflection, whether intended or not. Sure, the movie's creators have swiped most of their ingredients, from premise to casting to aesthetics, from George Romero's famous zombie trilogy, beginning with Night of the Living Dead (made in 1968, another catastrophic year in global life and political relations); the new film warrants praise for its effects even if it loses points for uniqueness. The decision to shoot 28 Days Later on digital video was surely a budgetary choice, but a notable result of this approach is that the movie's grainy, whiplashing oscillations between stillness and violence match the fuzzy portraits of strife that now dominate our print and televisual media.

Boyle and his collaborators have made a scary and competent thriller; the times in which they forged it have transformed it into an uncanny mirror and a cautionary tale worth pausing over. It is easy enough, and in many senses justified, to question Boyle's consistency as a filmmaker, or Garland's originality as a scriptwriter, or the finer nuances of this shot or that performance. But it is easier, and heedless, and maybe even dangerous, to use these disputes as excuses to reject the movie tout court. 28 Days Later is saying something. It is showing us something. And this "something" has nothing to do with zombies—even the most bestial boogeymen in this movie are, at a degraded but literal level, alive. The various monstrosities on view in this picture do not represent the supernatural unrest of the dead but the palpable debasements of the living. Pay attention. B


Awards:
European Film Awards: Best Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle; also cited for Dogville)

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