28 Days Later... (2002/2003) ****
“I was expecting a few more zombies.” That was the first thing that went through my mind after watching Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later... I mean, when somebody “reinvents the zombie movie,” you kind of figure there are going to be a fair number of zombies about. But the very fact that the living dead— who aren’t even properly dead, incidentally— are kept off-screen most of the time in this film has much to do with that “reinvention.” Rather than focusing on the horror of the zombies themselves, as is generally the plan with such movies, 28 Days Later... concerns itself mainly with the question of what it would take to survive and go on living (not quite the same thing) under the conditions traditionally posited by the post-Romero zombie flick. Those who come in looking for Day of the Dead will probably be disappointed, but anyone who enjoyed I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain will find much to appreciate.
Let’s begin by clearing up one obvious source of potential confusion. 28 Days Later... is less a zombie movie than a successor to The Crazies or Cannibal Apocalypse. When a trio of animal rights activists break into the Cambridge Institute for Primate Research with the intention of “liberating” the experimental subjects, it never occurs to them to look into just what kind of experiments the chimps they’ve come to free have been subjected to. A scientist from the laboratory catches them in the act, and tries to warn them, but to no avail. The activists have no room in their worldview for the idea that the animals have been inoculated with a virus the scientist calls “rage,” that the disease is contagious, or that it is of paramount importance that the chimps remain safely caged and restrained. One of the activists trips the latch on the nearest cage to her, and is immediately attacked by the animal inside. Her colleagues kill the chimp (evidently even animal rights partisans are sensible enough to compromise their principles in the face of a direct assault), but she has already been bitten several times by the ape. She turns feral herself, and goes murderously berserk.
28 days later, a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) emerges from the coma in which he has lain ever since he was run down by a motorist about a month ago. His hospital room is empty, and strangely quiet. So, for that matter, is the rest of the wing, and indeed the entire building. There is evidence of looting, as well— the vending machines in the lobby have been smashed open, and their contents scattered across the floor in front of them. Grabbing up a few candy bars and cans of soda, Jim heads out into the street, which proves to be equally deserted. There’s no one to be seen at Parliament. No one at Buckingham Palace. No one at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It isn’t until he reaches Picadilly Circus that Jim gets some inking of what happened while he was comatose; a newspaper he finds on the ground mentions the evacuation of London, and the bulletin boards in the center of the circle are covered in notes from evacuees, addressed to friends and relatives who could not be found before the deadline to leave the city. And though all of these print sources are silent on the subject of why London had to be evacuated, Jim will soon be finding that out for himself. He ducks inside a church, where a vandal has left him the advice to “repent— the end is extremely fucking nigh,” and where he is nearly overcome by the stench of decaying flesh. Some of the bodies stacked between and atop the pews aren’t dead yet, though, and with the parish priest at their head, these survivors rush Jim with violence obviously on their minds. But as the pack closes the distance between it and Jim, the latter notices that somebody has begun lobbing Molotov cocktails at his pursuers. One of Jim’s rescuers grabs him and leads him off down a side street while the other sets a bomb that destroys not just the oncoming mob, but everything within about a three-block radius.
The people who just saved Jim’s ass are named Mark (Noah Huntley, of Event Horizon and Megiddo: The Omega Code 2) and Selena (Naomie Harris, from the 90’s version of “The Tomorrow People”). Like Jim, they were unable for one reason or another to evacuate London when the order came through, and they have been trapped in the city ever since. But unlike Jim, they were conscious when the catastrophe hit, and they are able to explain to him more or less what happened. The first sign of what was to come was the rioting, which began in London, but soon spread even to small villages in the countryside. The media got the word out that the outbreaks of violence were caused by a strange virus, spread like AIDS by contact with bodily fluids, and it was soon thereafter that efforts to evacuate the major cities— which, naturally, were hit hardest by the rage plague— got underway. It did little good, however, and so far as Mark and Selena can determine, Great Britain has fallen into total anarchy— no government, no army, no utilities, no social infrastructure of any kind. And considering that the last news reports heard from the outside world before all the radio and television stations fell silent had it that the virus had spread to both Paris and New York, it seems reasonably likely that the rest of the world is just as fucked as the Isles. Jim doesn’t believe them at first, of course, but a visit to his home in Deptford convinces him that the story is true. Not only have both of Jim’s parents committed suicide, the house is attacked that night by the next door neighbors, one of whom bites Mark on the arm. Selena cold-bloodedly hacks her friend to death with her machete; the rage virus takes only about ten or twenty seconds to produce its symptoms, so you have exactly that long to kill anyone who’s been infected before they kill you.
The Infected travel in packs, so Selena knows it’s only a matter of time before the house is overrun. With that in mind, she leads Jim back out into the city in search of a safer hiding place. While they’re out, Jim notices a pattern of lights flashing rhythmically in a window halfway up a high-rise apartment building. They go to investigate, and again they are nearly killed when the Infected swarm into the tower block behind them, but they are saved by the owner of those blinking lights, who ushers them along to his flat and fights off the Infected with a club and a police-issue plexiglass riot shield. The man’s name is Frank (Brendan Gleeson, from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Lake Placid, whose acting has improved remarkably since 1999). He and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), have been living in their fortified old flat ever since the plague hit, but the time is fast approaching when they’ll have to move on. They’re running out of food, they’ve gone through nearly all the drinkable water in the tower, and since it hasn’t rained in ten days, there’s no telling when they’ll next have a fresh supply. That might seem like the end of the line to Selena and Jim, but Frank knows something they don’t. With the clearer sky-arcs afforded by his higher elevation, Frank has been able to pick up a radio signal that the kids living on the street below hadn’t. It’s just a recording, but it tells of a team of soldiers who have set themselves up near a highway blockade outside of Manchester. Not only does this message offer hope in the form of a group of heavily armed men and a functioning outpost of society, the man making the broadcast claims to have found “the answer to infection.” It’ll be risky, sure, but Frank’s got an old taxi cab down in the garage, and he thinks they can make it. Besides, what else are they going to do? But before they all roll out, they ought to consider this: When was the last time you saw a zombie movie in which the military wasn’t up to no good?
While I’m not sure the zombie movie needed to be “reinvented,” it certainly could use some rejuvenation, and if 28 Days Later... can accomplish that, then I’m all for it. And it seems to me that this movie could very well do just that if given half a chance. 28 Days Later... is easily the best serious zombie movie to come out in many a year— probably since the 1980’s. I’m even willing to forgive the paucity of zombie action on the grounds that it makes very good sense in terms of the story— the Infected are portrayed as being so dangerous that the only reliable way to survive an encounter with them is not to have it in the first place. Like the fast and invulnerable zombies of The Return of the Living Dead, this answers the longstanding objection that any fool could handle a Romero-esque zombie outbreak, just so long as they had the presence of mind to keep fucking moving. 28 Days Later... also scores in being pretty much the only movie of its type that I know of that makes the issue of food, water, and utilities a major plot point and deals with it in a realistic manner. And while it does fall into the usual rut of making the military men the bad guys, at least it has the integrity to give Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston, of eXistenZ and The Others) and his men an intelligible, defensible reason for doing what they do. Finally, it’s a real treat, after all those years’ worth of zombie flicks by the likes of Bruno Mattei, Andrea Bianchi, and Fred Olen Ray, to see one directed by a cinematic stylist of Danny Boyle’s caliber. 28 Days Later... is a movie filled with images that get immovably lodged in your brain, like the shadows of the Infected skittering frenetically across the wall of a traffic tunnel or the Manchester skyline in flames on the horizon at twilight. So while it’s true that I expected more zombies, I’m entirely satisfied with what I got instead.