Restless, irksome, strange: there’s not much downtime in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. 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.
Twenty-eight days later . . . reads the intertitle, and bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) is waking up in a hospital room. Ripping the tubes from his arms, he staggers down the hallway to find the place deserted, the ookiness boosted by Anthony Dod Mantle’s grainy-digital, frankly and superbly hard-to-read videowork. Jim can only remember that he was in an accident on his bike, but can’t even guess what’s going on now. And no one’s around to tell him, just abandoned vehicles and paper-strewn streets, as if he’s Burgess Meredith wandering about in The Twilight Zone.
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).
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.
Indeed, 28 Days Later, directed by Boyle, written by Alex Garland and produced by Andrew MacDonald (the same team who made The Beach and are as happy to forget it as you are), is upfront about its inspirations (think also of Romero’s The Crazies, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth, Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet, 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, shocking violence (zombies coming through the windows and walls like they’re reenacting Romero’s movies), and lasting disaster.
At the same time, seeming good ideas don’t really 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; this at Selena’s behest, as she 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). Selena’s worry that the family will only slow them down speaks to 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. 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 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 speed-heaving against his constraints (think: frantic chimpanzee in a cage). 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 very concept 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, however, potentially (and however unintentionally) 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).
Here the effects are shifted, 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 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.