“We debated at one point about using real footage of terrible civil unrest and death and violence, and we decided, rightly I think, that we wouldn’t use anything that involved any real deaths.” Instead, says Alex Garland, screenwriter for 28 Days Later, they “mocked up” any such scenes, granting the movie barely enough distance from recent events that it still registers as horror fiction and not news.
In time for Halloween, Fox has released the DVD of 28 Days Later, a frankly brilliant and scary scary movie. In part, this is because the film genuinely rethinks zombies (that hoary notion that hasn’t been much different film to film over many years). But the film is also scary because its plot and aesthetic are so very near to past, current, and thinkable future events. If the shots of a bleak, deserted London are not enough to conjure connections, Garland and director Danny Boyle’s commentary track points out the particulars.
28 Days Later
Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson
US DVD: 21 Oct 2003
Looking at an early scene where Jim (Cillian Murphy) stumbles out of a desolate hospital (no corpses in sight), they recall debating whether to include shots of bodies, and their decision to go with the emptiness, as yet unexplained. Or, as he wanders through London’s stark, garbage-strewn streets, Boyle says, “This stuff is based on a photograph out of Cambodia, after Pol Pot was driven out of Phnom Penh, and there was money out in the streets, because it was useless.”
Throughout, Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital video imagery is barren, sketchy, and restless, evoking fear and dread not in the usual manner—a slow build to tension—but in speed. From the film’s first moments, when a crew of ski-masked, PETA-style activists break into a London lab to save test animals, the camera is in motion, the cuts convulsive, the shadows ragged. One chimp is strapped to a chair, forced to watch terrible human violence, like Alec in A Clockwork Orange. As the wannabe rescuers approach the chimps’ cages, a lab-coated doctor-type tries to stop them. The chimps, he blurts, are “infected.” With what, asks one girl, prone to tears at the sight of abused creatures. Comes the ominous, shaky-voiced answer: “Rage.” And with that, the teary girl unlocks the cage and the chimp leaps at her, sputtering furiously, ripping at her face as she screams.
As they watch the activists argue with the doctors, Boyle observes, “I remember when I first read this scene, I thought what a wonderful premise it was, for a psychological virus.” Garland adds, “This scene more than any other, is pure genre in the way that it’s written. But in the way that it’s shot, it sort of pulls it away from that. It was quite strange for me watching this for the first time.” We can only imagine.
Twenty-eight days later… reads the intertitle, and bicycle courier Jim is waking up in that hospital. Jim can only remember that he was in an accident on his bike, but can’t even guess what’s going on now. Following his accident, Jim has a wacky hair-buzz and a dazed look that reflects his surroundings. Jim picks up wads of money, not realizing yet how worthless it will be. Wandering the streets, he looks out from Waterloo Bridge, picks up a weeks-old newspaper with a headline reading, “EVACUATION,” and stumbles on a notice board at Piccadilly Circus: photos, scraps of paper, desperate pleas for help in finding missing people (shot before 9-11 and edited during the aftermath and amid anthrax anxieties, the image eerily evokes NYC’s memorials and notice boards). Boyle notes that the soundtrack is filled by “driving apocalyptic, climactic music,” by the French Canadian anarchist group, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
As Jim eventually discovers—when he’s discovered by a pair of survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley)—Britain has been decimated by the rage virus, passed on by saliva, blood, and other bodily fluids. Once stricken, the victim has only a few seconds before he or she turns into the most spastic of zombies, filmed and edited to resemble some speed freakish nightmare, all flailing limbs and staccato movements. It’s Night of the Living Dead on crack.
28 Days Later recalls all sorts of other apocalyptic movies (from Romero’s The Crazies and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, to Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth, Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet, and Ridley Scott’s Alien, even the video-game-based Resident Evil), not to mention every real-life viral scare ever, from polio or syphilis to AIDS or SARS (this last, or course, a reference after the fact). Its maniacal mash-up sensibility extends to plot, which lurches from moment to moment and mood to mood.
Bad (don’t-go-in-there!) ideas are obvious: Jim’s insistence on seeing his certainly dead parents leads to brief nostalgic misery (by way of a Super-8 “home-movie-style” flashback, for which Boyle points out shots of his own back garden and door—the movie was made on the cheap, but such attention to detail is also resonant in a way that a big budgeted movie couldn’t be) and then, shocking violence. Zombies crash in through the windows and walls like they’re reenacting Romero’s movies (Boyle recalls that one through tripped and fell during his first go, “which was pretty funny”), leading to what Garland calls “the Psycho scene,” dispatching what seems a crucial character.
At the same time, in this devolved world, seeming good ideas don’t hold up, either. Following some unsettling run-ins with roving, hyperkinetic infecteds, Jim and Selena meet a warmly welcoming cab driver, Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his teenaged daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The tender father-daughter dynamic differs crucially from Jim and Selena’s flintier affinity. They’re introduced hiding out in a tower block apartment, attempting to retain a semblance of human ritual around Christmastime, by playing “Frosty the Snowman” on a music box; here, Boyle observes dryly, “That’s the most expensive bit of music in the whole film.” As Garland puts it, with Frank’s hello, ‘there’s a tremendous injection of warmth.”
Selena knows you have to be able to kill an infected, no matter who it is, at a moment’s notice (her own capacity for such violence is brutally demonstrated, a useful lesson for gentle Jim), and she worries that the family will only slow them down. This concern underlies the film’s basic quandary: is it necessary to lose traditionally “human” compassion, to match the infected’s ferocity, in order to combat them?
With this structuring dilemma, it’s no surprise that the gentlest characters—Jim and Frank—undergo the most drastic transformations. Indeed, the dilemma comes to a climax when the newly formed band leave the city in search of a “safe haven” outside Manchester, announced by a weeks-old radio recording: “The answer to infection is here.” En route, they find a supermarket, where they indulge their hungers—for cakes and tinned delicacies—suggesting that humanity, for now, has a certain weakness for consuming treats, and not just from vending machines.
The haven turns out to be a military outpost commanded by one Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). The soldiers are ensconced in an abandoned mansion “in the country” (such that the dangers of infected assaults change shape—in the city, they resemble gangs, so awful that rats run from them; out here, they’re like marauding animals, and the soldiers appear to have designed a system—lights, landmines, heavy artillery—with which to keep them at bay.
Proud of his domain and looking to protect it at all costs, West—the second father figure for Jim—shows off his cook’s talents with eggs, his men’s discipline and loyalty, and most sensationally, his “experiment.” This is an infected black soldier they were able to sedate long enough to chain up, now wide awake and bleeding from his eyes, snarling and heaving against his constraints (think: frantic chimpanzee in a cage). (This soldier, Mailer, is played by Marvin Campbell, who appears as a healthy soldier when Jim and company enter the compound; as Boyle and Garland note, this “major continuity error” occurred because they “promoted” Marvin to play Mailer, a “Featured Infected,” after shooting the entrance footage.)
West explains that he hopes to observe his development, to gauge how long it takes him to starve to death, as if the other zombies will ever run out of bodies to consume. Here the film lays out another interest, less clearly worked-out than its obvious attention to viruses and horror movie conventions. With this chained zombie-soldier, 28 Days Later takes up the ways that race frames the concepts of infection, as this has shaped racism for hundreds of years—fears of otherness, contagion, miscegenation. Selena’s blackness alongside everyone else’s whiteness initially seems a non-issue, as the more significant difference is eruptive and horrific, the infected’s transmutation into a non-human race.
The appearance of this black soldier redraws distinctions and raises difficult questions, recalling the effects of Ben’s (Duane Jones) blackness in Night of the Living Dead (as this and the lynch mobbish sheriff’s posse drew attention to racism and Civil Rights activism in 1968). Boyle says that the scene introducing Mailer (literally, as West names him for Jim, and names Jim for Mailer) changed shape repeatedly. “I always felt it should be more theoretical about the kind of pulse, an intellectual pulse, that lays behind the idea of the film, and rage, and our responsibility for rage, the psychological sickness we have with each other. But it always felt plunky, so we ended up with a much more matter of fact scene, I supposes, which is about the progression of the narrative.” And Garland here connects Mailer to Romero’s third Living Dead film, with Bubba chained up in the compound, hoping out loud that viewers appreciate the homages to other films.
The effects of blackness shift in 28 Days Later, in part because times have changed, and in part because they have not (Ben’s dicey dealing with an hysterical white woman, Barbara [Judith Odea] is still more anxiety-making than Jim’s relationship with Selena). Selena and Jim each undergo specific transformations in 28 Days Later. At first, she distrusts him out of hand—no ties for this machete-wielding warrior woman, as she knows she needs to be able to kill anyone who’s infected within seconds. Still, he grows on her, as he must in a genre picture: on seeing that he’s changed (able to kill), she asks, “Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck?” Now, these may not be so opposed as options as they seem, but her point is plain. Are Jim’s goals global or immediate, like every other guy she’s ever known?
Eventually, Selena changes from tough, smart action girl (“Plans are pointless,” she says early on, “Staying alive’s as good as it gets”) to distressed, if angry, damsel (granted, this is overstated visually, as she’s forced to don a gown as she anticipates her own gang-rape). And Jim becomes a vicious killer, as ready to exact ugly survivalist vengeance as any conditioned and ultimately desperate soldier boy. Both these trajectories are complicated and inexact, adhering to genre conventions but also strained and subversive. While the virus metaphor is obviously timely, the characters’ seeming capacity to forget these nasty changes in themselves by film’s end may be the film’s most unsettling point.
The virus angle is underlined in the DVD’s featurette, “Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days Later,” which includes ruminations on the “killer epidemics” by experts and the film’s cast and crew (“Infection knows no boundaries”; “Nobody is immune”); this focus (rather than most featuretttes’ observations on how “great” it was to work with so-and-so) lends 28 Days Later an apparent immediacy. In addition, and more mundanely, the DVD includes five deleted scenes (one set in a train that’s been used as a hospital; Jim walking in London again; while watching Jim run past a staircase banister, Boyle notes his “favorite shot in the whole film,” adding, “You should always cut your favorite shot”; when asked why, he says, “Just bloody-mindedness”; and some others, obviously dropped for reasons of pacing).
Perhaps the most anticipated extra is the packet of alternate endings (one of which was added to the theatrical release, an unsubtle exploitation of the film’s initial surprise hit-ness. Still the three alternate endings on the DVD bring new dimensions to the film: one resembles the theatrical release, with the plane’s appearance offering “hope”; one brings Jim back to the hospital where he started and focuses “on the women” (Selena and Hannah), termed by Boyle the “bleakest of our three”; and one, rendered only in storyboards, leaves out the soldiers altogether, rendered only in storyboards, with Boyle doing character voices.
And voices, as Boyle and Garland point out, are crucial to the film’s haunting, difficult climax, as Jim makes his way through the English mansion, killing soldiers one by one, and the men scream and yell, whether zombies or still humans. As he is here “infected” with rage, not with the virus but with rage, Selena observes him, trying to suss out whether or not she must kill him. It’s a question that, according to the film’s thematic and political interests—in community, responsibility, and commitment—can never be answered finally.