Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on June 27, 2003, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? When it’s 28 Days Later, whose human monsters aren’t quite dead but are possessed of a virus-borne, homicidal rage that turns them into rampaging killing machines. Yet the film fits comfortably within the tenets of the undead genre, particularly given how informed it is by George Romero’s Dead trilogy. The references, in fact, come thick and fast in Alex Garland’s script, which also carries echoes of The Omega Man (and, by extension, Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend), Day of the Triffids and even a pinch of Reign of Fire. Pastiches aren’t supposed to work this well, but the humanity Garland brings to the writing and the ferocity of Danny Boyle’s direction allow 28 Days Later to live up to that oft-used claim: It reinvents the subgenre.
Dovetailing neatly and eerily (but coincidentally, as it was filmed before 9/11) with current concerns about mass human destruction and deadly diseases, 28 Days Later follows Jim (Cillian Murphy) a London bike messenger who wakes up in hospital after a month-long coma. He soon discovers that a lot has happened while he was out: animal activists accidentally let loose a “rage virus” from a primate testing lab, and it has gone on to infect a very large percentage of the population. The city is now deserted save for a handful of survivors and roving, raving packs of afflicted people, who savagely assault anyone they encounter. They’re not out to drink blood, or eat brains—they’re driven purely by homicidal anger, which makes them very much of their time, a period when “road rage” and “air rage” are frequently in the news. As someone says in Dawn of the Dead, “They’re us.”
Separating them from the ghouls of Romero’s films and others of their ilk is the manner in which Boyle presents the attacks. Rather than slow, lumbering creatures whose numbers and implacability pose the threat, the “infected” move with superhuman speed, lurching out of nowhere to attack their victims. Boyle works plenty of seat-jumpers out of their sudden, murderous appearances, but he’s not just out for shock effects; the viciousness of these setpieces is genuinely bloodcurdling, and once we know what the “infected” are capable of, he builds plenty of suspense out of the threat of their appearance. And he also knows how to subvert expectations, as when Jim, taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and the rest of their small band are trapped in a highway tunnel.
Throughout, Boyle and Garland subscribe to one of Joe Bob Briggs’ key rules for horror films: Anyone can die at any time. The filmmakers have described Jim’s arc as an odyssey through a series of father figures who wind up failing him, and indeed, the supporting characters’ apparent abilities to take charge of the situation exist in inverse proportion to their chances for survival. As audience surrogate and everyman, the unknown Murphy is well-cast and maintains viewer empathy right through to the end, as he inevitably comes to take matters violently into his own hands. Gleeson and Naomie Harris, as two of Jim’s fellow survivors, and Christopher Eccleston as a military man of questionable motivations are equally compelling, with Garland’s script never forgetting that we need to be interested in and care about the living in order to be truly concerned about what the almost-dead are up to.
There’s a link beyond the subject matter between 28 Days Later and Night of the Living Dead, and that is the way the roughness of its technical look contributes to its blunt effectiveness. Up until the movie’s restoration for laserdisc and DVD, Night’s grainy look was cited both for giving its events a stark immediacy, and for tying its horrors (some explicitly echoing then-current concerns) in with the gritty film footage airing on television. 28 Days Later was shot on digital video, and while this choice (like Night’s black-and-white filming) was dictated by expedience as much as aesthetic concerns, it gives the movie a raw, you-are-there feeling that has fresh relevance in this era of reality television. Not to mention that the quick-and-dirty shooting it allows gave Boyle and co. the chance to capture the creepy, remarkable footage of a deserted London, with no discernable digital enhancement.
28 Days Later joins the renaissance of big-screen horror taking place on screens this year, but unlike House of 1000 Corpses and Cabin Fever, which hark back to the ’70s and ’80s, Boyle’s movie is very much a product of its time. For all the moments when it puts you in mind of Romero’s films and other antecedents, 28 Days Later leaves you with the feeling that it couldn’t have been made at any other time than today.