Film Discussion

28 Days Later – Throwback 20

Zombies have been pretty big over the last couple of decades. They’ve been showing up in video games, as series like Resident Evil have become more and more popular; films such as Army of the Dead and Train To Busan have come out in recent years; and The Walking Dead seems to be the zombie franchise that, much like the creatures it tells stories about, refuses to die. And whilst zombies are an interesting thing to throw into certain stories, and are great when done well, if you look back at one of the films that seemed to spark the new zombie craze, you’ll find a story that is more often mislabelled as a zombie movie, when it’s absolutely not.

28 Days Later isn’t a zombie movie. That’s something that needs to be said right out the gate, as I’ve seen people call it that more times than seems fair. It shares a lot of similarities with zombie stories, I’ll give it that, but the film features precisely zero zombies. Instead, it’s a story about a virus. And coming back to look at the film now, after the last few years we’ve had, the film feels a lot different to the way it did in say 2018. The images of deserted streets that were once filled with life feel kind of familiar. People leaving signs warning of the end times, and memorialising those they’ve lost are things we’ve seen recently. And people afraid of being around others due to the risk of infection, isolating themselves away, is something that we’ve all got even a little bit of experience with.

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But, you can’t really ignore the blood-soaked infected running around, attacking those lucky enough to have escaped the virus, seeking to kill or turn whoever they can. And indeed, director Danny Boyle said in multiple interviews both during the film’s release and years later that he was largely inspired by works like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and that he was reminded of how fun zombies were by playing the Resident Evil games. So perhaps it is fair to call it a zombie film. Though one way in which Boyle, and the film’s writer Alex Garland, made their ‘zombies’ stand out was by having it be infectious rage. The infected weren’t driven by a desire to eat, but by a need to hurt and kill. Their anger made them charge at anyone who wasn’t like them, to tear them apart, to beat them, harm them in any way possible. And if even a single drop of infected blood got into your system you’d turn too, within moments.

Photo by Peter Mountain – © 2002 – Fox Searchlight.

The infected of 28 Days Later was a genuine shock when the film was first released, and not just because this was the first time that audiences had really seen ‘zombies’ that would run towards you as fast as they could, but because the infection was so insidious. Most people will have felt anger at some point in their lives, and most likely rage too. That feeling that comes over you when you really don’t want it to, the desire to lash out, to scream, to break something. The idea of being stuck in that state, constantly, worse than you’ve ever felt it before, to the point where you’ll hurt the people that you love most in the world is somehow more terrifying than dying and becoming a zombie; because these infected were still alive and still felt.

As with all good zombie stories though, it’s not about the infected, and 28 Days Later puts the focus squarely on people. It’s people that cause the outbreak to happen, driven by a desire to do good and the refusal to listen to reason, and it’s people that cause some of the worst things that happen to those who manage to survive. After the introduction that shows how the infection began, the film introduces us to Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bike courier who was hit by a car and knocked into a coma. Waking up after his accident (guess how many days), he’s shocked to find the hospital deserted, the streets of London empty, and signs of a disaster all around him.

Photo by Peter Mountain – © 2002 – Fox Searchlight.

He eventually meets up with a few other survivors, Selena (Naomi Harris), taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Fleeing London to try and get away from the hordes of infected, the four of them head north, hoping to find help and shelter. When they find a group of soldiers holed up in a stately home, led by Major West (Christopher Eccleston) they think they’ve found safety, but it soon becomes apparent the people designed to protect them may be as dangerous as the infected.

A lot of post-apocalypse survival films pose the question of whether humanity is worth saving. They make people the worst villains, no matter if it’s zombies, aliens, weird ghosts, or whatever it is that has brought the world to an end. People are the worst. People lie and steal and hurt each other to get what they want, and that happens when the only people left can all fit into one building. 28 Days Later understands this, and as such the latter half of the film shifts the focus away from escaping the infected and looks at the horrors that regular people can do.

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28 Days Later might not have a single zombie in the entire movie, but it carries on the traditions of some of the best zombie stories around. It puts people in the centre of the narrative, it asks questions about what would happen to people if society broke down, and if they’re even worth saving. It helped to spark a desire for stories like this that has led to what some would call an over-saturation of the genre, but as one of the first of this new wave, one that did things so differently, and one with images and themes that hit so differently now, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic (it’s still not gone folks!), it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed lightly.

28 Days Later was released in the UK on 1st November 2002.

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