On the fifteenth day of Halloween, Cillian Murphy’s soul-crushing blue eyes gave to me: 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
28 Days Later on a zombie movie list?
28 Days Later is the darling of the zombie genre, and is by and large considered a modern horror classic. There’s a lot of hype around this movie, and I’d say it isn’t without just cause. 28 Days Later is a stark vision of the zombie apocalypse: and it’s a bleak, despairing projection.
For those who have been following along, 28 Days Later is the second entry on my list of zombie movies. The first was Planet Terror, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the pulpy b-movies of the 70s. As I’ve established on this blog, I adore self-aware, campy midden heaps movies. They’re fun to watch, and require little investment.
To be quite clear, 28 Days Later is not one of those movies. There is not a jolly bone in this film, nor a single ounce of levity. When I think of this movie, the first word that comes to mind is “bleak.” It’s an unsettling film made for the modern era, one which forgoes tropes and genre conventions to create a zombie movie that stands out among its peers.
Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma, only to find that his hospital- and the whole of London- is mysteriously deserted. Attempting to understand what has happened since his accident, Jim stumbles through the city, only to be attacked by mindless, ravenous humans. Survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) swoop in to save Jim, and they quickly enlighten him as to what has happened: a disease has torn through London, turning people into Rage-infected monsters. As Jim comes to terms with what has happened, he and Selena do their best to stay alive, encountering other survivors on the way. Making their way to a military outpost with father and daughter Frank and Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) in tow, the group realizes that the military is just as lost as they are.
There is a certain haunting quality to 28 Days Later: the emptiness, the austere palette, the grainy quality of the film. Watching Jim walk through the actually deserted streets of London is almost lyrical, simply because it’s such a foreign image. The dissonant electric guitar and children’s choir makes everything feel surreal: and it is, particularly to Jim. There’s an almost art-house feel to 28 Days Later, which helps create a a rather unique atmosphere for the film as a whole.
let’s talk zombies
So one of the things that 28 Days Later became famous for in horror circles was the use of the running zombie. Some people were furious: how dare they desecrate the traditional image of the shambling, slow-walking undead? In their defense, A) slow moving zombies are the standard and B) the zombie apocalypse becomes a lot harder to survive when the zombies can sprint.
I personally loooooooove the concept of the running zombie. I mean, the market is inundated with your basic, plodding-along walkers. Running ups the ante, raises the stakes, makes everything just a little bit more urgent. I’m into that.
Gore aside, be aware that there is attempted sexual assault, mentions of suicide, and depictions of violence against children.
Zombies aside, there is a decidedly emotional edge to 28 Days Later, and parts of it are hard to watch at points. This movie gives us brief glimpses into families torn apart: every survivor has suffered tremendously. Children lose parents, parents lose children, lovers lose lovers. It’s an inherent part of the zombie apocalypse but it’s one that is often played cheaply. Not so with 28 Days Later: memory and trauma all play out on the screen for us to see, and it’s hard to watch. Happiness doesn’t last in a post-apocalyptic world, and social relationships are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt.
i’ll save the post-apocalyptic familial construction discussion for another post
While I think there’s a message about blind rage being a poison on society (and again not to trust the government) this movie isn’t didactic , and doesn’t smack of allegory. It also manages the tense balance between human drama and zombie drama really, really well.
I bring this up because most “cerebral” takes on the zombie genre focus on the infighting, the struggle for social survival, the rebuilding of society: all good, important things to think about and consider. My cynical side sees this as an attempt by filmmakers to distance themselves from the “uncultured” bite’n’fight pulp most commonly associated with zombie movies. And that’s fair, as a lot of zombie movies are trash and emotionally empty, and not in the fun way.
But a lot of these films/books/what-have-you put so much into the social element that I think they forget that they’re in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. Like the marketing people probably wet themselves when the director walked in, whipped off their expensive sunglasses and quietly whispered to them with teary eyes; “The undead aren’t the real horror. It’s the living that are.”
That’s true to a certain point, but like, dead people are still rising? On a list of problems in a zombie apocalypse, whoever’s banging whoever’s partner is gonna automatically rank second to reanimated corpses. I think a successful zombie movie has got to either forgo all semblance of seriousness, or find a balance between the human and the zombie. I think 28 Days Later hits the sweet spot between the two: the audience cares about and is invested in the characters onscreen and their survival, but we are also keenly aware of the ever-present threat of zombies.
My all-time favorite book, World War Z, is the perfect balance. It’s entirely centered around the human experience in the zombie apocalypse, including the rebuilding of nations, military response, cultural divides, etc. And yet, the zombies still play a crucial role in the whole thing. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s written as a series of interviews, so it’s pretty easy and quick to read. If you need a compelling, inventive read, give it a shot. The extended audiobook (it’s still abridged, just….less abridged than the original) is also delightful, and voiced by a host of talented, famous actors.
A moment for Selena and Hannah
Selena is a beautifully written and acted character (thank you Naomie!), and is delightfully multi-dimensional. She is both a hardened, cynical survivor, and yet is still a deeply protective, caring individual. This duality is most apparent in her relationship with Hannah: Selena desperately wants to shelter Hannah, in stark contrast to her statements about leaving anyone who slows her down behind. Selena’s toughness isn’t a facade, but she also wants to be strong so Hannah doesn’t have to be. I don’t necessarily see this desire as maternal, but rather Selena seeing herself in Hannah, and wanting to protect her from experiencing what she has. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but girls protecting girls on film is rare, and I always want to give it a shout out where I can.
Cillian Murphy’s eyes and voice: a love letter
This isn’t my favorite zombie movie, but it certainly is one of the best-made ones. It takes itself very seriously, but has the artistic chops to back up this seriousness. 28 Days Later is refreshing in its gravity and aesthetic, and makes for one hell of a movie. It may not be light fare or an easy view, but 28 Days Later deserves a place on your watch list, no matter how much of a horror fan you are.
I also want you to know that I have refrained from making ANY period jokes, because this is a Serious Movie and not about menstrual rage (despite my initial thoughts the first time I heard the title of this film). For Pete’s sake, 28 days? What else am I supposed to think? It wasn’t until I saw the trailer that I realized that this was a zombie movie.
…I’m real bright, I promise.
At any rate, I highly recommend this movie, particularly for a gloomy, rainy day.
Featured image source:http://fixingfilm.com/28-days-later/
Devil Wears Prada gif: http://popkey.co/m/0xLKW-merryl+streep-devil+wears+prada-prada