Zombie films have become a staple of the horror genre. It all began with Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course, Dracula, which brought us fear and made us afraid to go to sleep at night. It wasn’t until George A. Romero released Night of the Living Dead in 1968 that a zombie film was defined. It was deemed “The scariest movie of all time,” and while it may not be so terrifying by today’s standards, we have Romero to thank for bringing zombies to the horror genre. 28 Days Later is a British zombie film, but not quite what you think it is. It looks like one, feels like it and yet it isn’t in some ways. Its presentation is fittingly bleak in the wake of disaster, but 28 Days Later reignited the interest in zombie films in ways that no one could’ve predicted.
It begins when Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in the hospital and realizes that nobody is around. The hospital is empty, it’s dead quiet and he’s all alone. The streets of London are empty and dirty and newspaper headlines read, “Evacuation”. Could you imagine waking up and being the only person around? That would be pretty terrifying. Jim later meets up with some survivors who tell him a story that hardly seems real. People are infected and are attacking each other. People are dead, families are missing and there is no hope. The rules are to only travel during the day, avoid using lights and noise as the infected will spot you.
What’s interesting is how Director Danny Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland set up this apocalyptic scenario. In usual zombie films, the infected are often seen as horrid looking and in the case of Romero’s films, have a taste for human organs. This isn’t the case here. The infected have red eyes, look like regular people and have an urge to violently attack others who aren’t infected. Plus, they run. They run fast unlike zombies who stumble around and walk very slowly.
Early in the film we learn that chimps are infected with something called “Rage.” Animal activists break into a facility where the animals are caged and attempt to release them much to the dismay of a scientist who pleads with them not to do so. This ‘Rage” causes the host, or animal/human, to violently attack anyone resulting in their death. The activists release a chimp that attacks a woman who becomes infected herself. You can imagine if one falls victim to infection, then the disease will only spread further.
Most zombie films never talk about how the infection starts, or what caused it. Night of the Living Dead did that in a very unique way, and 28 Days Later expresses the idea of disease instead of an unknown origin. If you’re able to find a copy of 28 Days Later: The Aftermath, a graphic novel that goes into detail about the infection and bridges the gap between 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, you’ll get some interesting insights. The best example is the Ebola virus from which the screenwriter drew inspiration. There are shots in the movie that show mass suicide, mass graves and moments that reflect real-life instances never before seen in a zombie flick – sort of an homage from real-life disasters, making the movie feel almost plausible in a sense of the world.
One powerful moment is when Jim and Selena (Naomie Harris), a survivor whom he met earlier, meet Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) at their apartment building. It’s a moment when all hope seems lost and somehow people finding each other brings about a cause for celebration. This scene was filmed on September 11, 2001, which director Danny Boyle found ironic considering what happened in the United States. There’s even a moment where we see signs of missing people that line the walls in the city’s center. A last chance to hope for your loved ones also is eerily similar to the events after 9/11.
Now, I mentioned Ebola before. Screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, Ex Machina & Annihilation) drew inspiration from a viral outbreak that hit several African countries and is listed as one of the deadliest viruses in the world. To put that into perspective, twenty-five to ninety percent of all cases generally result in death. That is quite a large and scary number! The symptoms of Ebola are the same as seen in the film in relation to the “Rage” virus: redness of the eyes, mental confusion and vomiting of blood. The infected in the movie display these symptoms and act more like an ill person, instead of the traditional zombie. There’s a moment in the movie where an infected sees himself in a mirror. For a split second the infected person appears to recognize themselves and then resorts to attacking the non-infected.
As horror fans are aware, zombies love to dine on brains, if not human organs. Anybody who’s seen a Romero film will certainly remember scenes where the dead are feasting on human body parts. It’s grisly, shocking to some and left me with stomach pains for some days after a first viewing. Today, that idea may be old and nothing new, and it’s here that Boyle and Garland came up with the idea that the infected are more psychologically affected than physically. They don’t look like zombies. It’s only up-close that they look as dangerous as they are. They seem like regular people only until you realize that something is wrong.
The same can be said for a sick person. They look fine, but there’s something wrong with them. The infected show these signs and it’s one thing that makes 28 Days Later unique to other zombie films. I also love the fact that they run instead of slump around. Additionally, you don’t have to remove the head or destroy the brain to kill them. They can be shot, burned and bludgeoned in order to kill them. In this sense, 28 Days Later changed the way you can view a zombie film. Much like the remake of Dawn of the Dead, where it was humans vs. zombies instead of the undead being in the background. The film is handled almost like a worst-case scenario of a viral outbreak. Anyone remember Outbreak or Contagion? Of course, they didn’t have the undead running around.
I will mention nothing else of the plot as there are a lot of surprise moments, but I’m sure you’ve either seen or heard of the sequel 28 Weeks Later. That film in particular is strictly focused on being a gory, violent and brutal zombie film. It doesn’t have the social commentary and examinations that were present in Days, which was very sad. That isn’t to say if you like a typical zombie film that you should avoid it, but 28 Days Later is better written and directed, at least in my opinion.
Zombies are nothing new in the realm of horror and they will continue to scare us for years to come. From Night of the Living Dead to AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies will keep us prepared for the “what if” scenario. I love zombie movies, especially ones that are intense and unique in the way they are made. My favorites are Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead, and 28 Days Later. If you’re looking for something different and a movie that will get you talking, then look no further because 28 Days Later is unique in its writing, its cleverness, direction and the ideas it brings to the table.
There has been talk of another movie. The possible title is 28 Months Later. I think the title might sound a little goofy, but if done right, it could be another great film. Alex Garland and Danny Boyle have expressed interest, but nothing official has been mentioned. Still, 28 Days Later is a very different zombie film and one that gets better the more you watch it. It’s one that you’ll remember for years. Remember, the days are numbered.