This review contains MODERATE SPOILERS for the film 28 Days Later.
Between 1985 and 2000, there weren't a lot of mainstream zombie films released in North America. Similar to the dry spell slasher film fans experienced in the 1990s, zombie fans were left cold as the films they so loved fell out of style. It was a real kick in the groin for those of us who grew up on George Romero's cerebral zombie trilogy to realize we had been forgotten by mainstream Hollywood.
But then in early 2002, Fox Searchlight nabbed the North American distribution rights to a low budget, critically acclaimed British film called 28 Days Later. And that's when everything changed, because not only was 28 Days Later the first zombie film in a number of years to receive a theatrical release, it was also a mainstream success that opened the doors for not just the remake of a Romero classic, but also the long-stalled, Romero-helmed follow up to the original Living Dead Trilogy.
28 Days Later begins with a faceless group of animal rights activists (read: eco-terrorists) forcing entry into the Cambridge Primate Research Centre. Their motives are simple: they intended to free the primates that are being experimented on within the walls of the facility. Bless their nature-loving hearts.
But unfortunately the well meaning activists fail to heed the warnings of a squirrelly researcher, and as a result they unwittingly release a chimp that is infected with a devastatingly communicable virus that attacks the brain and renders the infected incapable of suppressing aggressive tendencies. The activists and the squirrelly scientist are all promptly infected, and then the film takes us twenty-eight days into the future.
Enter Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who has just awakened from a work-related coma. Left unattended in a hospital bed, Jim exits his room and finds the hospital has been abandoned entirely. Chairs are overturned, vending machine goodies lie scattered on the floor, and the phones are out of service. He leaves the hospital and wanders around an empty London until finally stumbling into a church that appears to have become a squat for hundreds of unwashed (and easily aggravated) Londoners.
As Jim struggles to survive in a city overrun with the Infected, he meets Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), a pair of survivors who are holed up in the London Underground. Selena explains to Jim the astonishing speed with which the virus overtook Great Britain, and Mark relates a story of having tried to escape London with his family shortly after the outbreak began.
Inspired by this, Jim decides to venture into the city and look for his own parents. Mark and Selena agree to accompany him. They travel by day because the Infected seem to remain in-doors during the daytime hours, and when they arrive at their destination they find that Jim's parents have committed suicide. That night, a couple of the Infected attack the flat and Mark receives a minor injury. When Selena notices the injury, she brutally assaults Mark and hacks him into pieces with her machete. Afterwards she explains to Jim that the infection travels in the blood, and that even a drop of infected blood can convert another person in a matter of seconds; there's simply no time to hesitate if you believe someone has been exposed.
The following day, they discover two more survivors -- Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). After spending the night together in an abandoned apartment complex, the foursome discusses their very limited options. Frank has been monitoring a looped Military broadcast coming from just outside Manchester that claims to have the answer to infection, so the group decides to seek out the source of the signal.
28 Days Later is one of those films that seemed to come out of nowhere. Director Danny Boyle wasn't exactly known for being a horror director, nor was Alex Garland known for being a horror writer. The pair had collaborated previously on The Island -- a film which was not even remote horrific -- so I have to admit that when I first heard about 28 Days Later, I was a little bit dubious. Thankfully, my concerns turned out to be mostly unfounded.
Garland's script is fairly lean, focusing mostly on the four main survivors and their struggle to find relief from the disaster that has befallen their country. The nature of the disaster has apocalyptic undertones, particularly in the early scenes where Jim examines the wall of Missing People posters (which in itself mirrors post-9/11 New York). Despite the fact that Britain seems to be the only country to have been overrun, for all intents and purposes the world really has come to an end for those fortunate enough to survive the outbreak.
For the most part, Boyle's directional style is taut and in some ways rather basic, which only helps to highlight those moments when he lets things flow a little less restricted. There are a few neat camera tricks peppered throughout the first half of the film, but the third act benefits from the fact that up until that point Boyle hasn't inundated us with a whole lot of flashy visuals tricks. The sequences involving Jim taking on Major West's (Christopher Eccleston) men in the rain, and later in an Infected-filled mansion, are beautifully photographed. As a result, the third act feels like a self-contained short film.
The film features both an instrumental score composed by John Murphy and a handful of songs written by various bands and performers. One of the audible highlights of the film is the Godspeed You! Black Emperor song East Hastings, which is utilized in heavily edited form during the early scenes of Jim wandering aimlessly around an abandoned London. East Hastings sets the tone of the film's score, and Murphy does a good job filling the film with music that sounds as though it would fit in comfortably on a GSYBE album, but at the same time avoids sounding like a complete knock off.
In terms of carnage, the film is pretty grisly. The Infected spew blood from their mouths in an attempt to infect others, and the very nature of these rage-driven zombie-like things lends itself to some violent confrontations. The third act in particular features some nice carnage, but it's not doled out as graphically as you might initially expect.
The only nudity in the film is a single full-frontal shot of Cillian Murphy in a hospital bed and a later shower scene in which he flashes his bum for all to see (I've recently realized we don't have a ratings scale image for male nudity, so don't let the image rating below fool you -- Cillian has no problem getting his kit off in this film.)
Before I wrap up, I wanted to briefly discuss the film's ending. I won't go into detail because I don't want to spoil things too much, but I feel that the theatrical ending has an unfair rep for being "too Hollywood" and "too happy". It's true that the film ends on a positive note, but I think that works in its favor. 28 Days Later is the kind of film you expect to end badly, so to see things left on a positive note was rather refreshing.
The DVD release of 28 Days Later features some nice extras, including audio commentary by Boyle & Garland, three alternate endings, deleted scenes with optional commentary, a 'Making Of' featurette, animated storyboards, some still photos, trailers, and a music video. If you're into special features, there's certainly enough of them here to wet your whistle. The digital transfer of the main feature is nice and clear with rich blacks and minimal artifacts, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound transfer does just what it says on the tin.
While 28 Days Later might not technically feature zombies, it is the film that opened the floodgates for the plethora of zombie films that we've seen hit the mainstream theatrical market over the last seven years. Garland's script is strong despite the third act feeling a little tacked on, Boyle's direction is suitably taut, the cast gives suburb performances (especially Brendan Gleeson & Christopher Eccleston), and the on screen grue is sufficiently wet without being overly gratuitous. Definitely Buy It!