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28 Days Later (2002)

August 31st, 2008 · 4 Comments

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Animal rights activists infiltrate the “Cambridge Primate Research Centre” to find a chimpanzee being monitored for its reaction to civil unrest on TV monitors. Ignoring warnings that the animals have been infected with “rage,” the activists unlock the cages. One of them is bitten. Going into convulsions and vomiting blood, she then attacks the others. 28 days later, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakens in a deserted hospital. Crossing the Westminister Bridge, he finds the entire city of London to be seemingly devoid of human activity as well.

Wandering into a church, Jim discovers piles of bodies and a priest with bloodshot eyes stricken by a violent illness. Chased by more of these infected, he’s rescued by Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), survivors armed with Molotov cocktails and gas masks. Jim reveals he’s a bicycle courier who was hit by a car. Selena tells him that while he was comatose, what began as rioting in small villages spread to the cities. “It was a virus. An infection. You didn’t need a doctor to tell you that. It was the blood. Something in the blood. By the time they tried to evacuate the cities, it was all ready too late.”

Mark and Selena accompany Jim to check on his parents, who are found dead from drug overdose. What used to be neighbors attack the house and when Mark is bitten, Selena wastes no time hacking him to death with her machete. She and Jim head for a beacon atop a housing project, where they find a cab driver named Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his 12-year-old daughter (Megan Burns). Frank has picked up a radio signal from a barracks in Manchester. The four survivors attempt to make it there by car, but instead of a cure or even safety, find an army major (Christopher Eccleston) whose unit is even more dangerous than the infected.


Production history
In 1999, Alex Garland was in Thailand visiting the set of The Beach, a film version of his novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Danny Boyle. Cost overruns, protests from environmentalists and pressure from Fox for the dark film to duplicate the success of Titanic were taking their toll on the production. In spite of this, producer Andrew Macdonald was eager to work with Garland again. “Alex is just a natural story teller and I wanted to make a film that had the same energy and excitement of reading one of his books. When he said that he’d always wanted to do science fiction, I encouraged him to look to H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, something set in Britain.”

Garland recalls, “Most British schoolboys have read The Day of the Triffids, and also I’m a huge J.G. Ballard fan. He wrote three novels set after an apocalypse, each with a different premise: no water, lots of water, the world setting into crystal. And I loved those novels, I loved the atmosphere. And also the films of George Romero.” While Garland was writing, The Beach was bombing. Danny Boyle – who’d segued from theater to television to film in England – was struggling to live up to the pedigree he’d earned with Trainspotting. He followed the disappointing reception of The Beach by making two short films for the BBC on digital video.

Working with Macdonald, Alex Garland expanded a fifty-page draft he’d showed the producer into a screenplay for 28 Days Later. Macdonald approached Danny Boyle with the project. The director had little desire to make a zombie flick, but liked Garland’s take, which was to introduce a psychological plague as opposed to a biological one. Garland’s scenario reminded Boyle of the foot and mouth outbreak that had ravaged England. He recalls, “They were followed by this absence of many months of any livestock in the countryside. If you took a train journey, everything was still and motionless outside the train or outside your car as you drove through. All this kind of fed into it.”


Macdonald secured half the film’s $8.7 million USD budget through a lottery endowment from the Arts Council of England, while the other half came from Fox Searchlight, whose president Peter Rice read the script at the Cannes Film Festival. Less than four months later – on September 1, 2001 – Boyle started filming 28 Days Later in London on Canon XL-1 Mini DV cameras, which retailed for around $4,000 at consumer electronics stores. Boyle stated, “Digital cameras are much more responsive to low light levels and the general idea was to try and shoot as though we were survivors too.”

Digital video afforded Boyle advantages to film. Few, if any, turf battles erupted with the lighting crew. The actors got to spend more time performing each day as opposed to waiting for a setup. Boyle adds, “Digital video is very good for stunts. Normally, unless you’re working at the level Ridley Scott’s working at – where for a big stunt he can have twelve movie cameras – on the kind of films we do, if you have a big stunt, you can really only afford three cameras. Whereas with digital, you can have twenty.” With the resources to clear traffic from London’s streets for only ninety seconds to two minutes at a time, Boyle could shoot from as many different angles as a mega film.

After opening in the U.K. November 2002, Fox brought 28 Days Later to the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003. Instead of magazines, billboards or talk shows, the studio took the unusual step of promoting the film on the Internet, spending $1 million for banner ads on AOL and Yahoo!, inviting Harry Knowles to a screening so he could hype it on his Ain’t It Cool News website and making six minutes of footage available for download on Apple’s Quicktime website. With no stars and little money, 28 Days Later took in a surprising $45 million in the U.S. and another $37 million overseas.


Playing well with critics – “Clever enough not to be too clever, Boyle and Garland play their story straight, they just want to give you the creeps, and, by so doing, bring the undead back to cinematic life,” wrote John Powers in L.A. Weekly – and audiences alike, Fox took another leap by attaching an alternate ending to the film after it had already been playing in the U.S. for 29 days. The darker conclusion had been rejected by Boyle and appeared as an extra on the DVD in the U.K. It now followed the ending in theaters, preceded by the title “But what if.”

In reviving the horror subgenre of “zombie movie” – which had been lying dormant since the early days of Cinemax and Return of the Living Dead – this film stands as a classic because it almost completely ignores those movies and creates its own brazen aesthetic. Apocalyptic, realistic, European in tone, raw and edgy, there’s no slickness to 28 Days Later, no moments that feel dedicated to the great directors of horror or suspense. Even a scene where a crow drops infected blood into the eyelid of one of the main characters is not storyboarded like a Hitchcock tribute, but instead, unfolds as if a news crew had stumbled onto it.

Like the zombies in Alex Garland’s no frills script, the style Danny Boyle energized the film with is quick and brutal. It’s exceedingly well cast for a B-movie, with Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris making a well matched Last Man and Final Girl. Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston have portrayed a long line of screen heavies and bring a welcome weight and deviousness to the other survivors. Short on plot or artifice, 28 Days Later is one of the best documents on the end of the world ever made. The atmosphere is heightened by Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital photography and the foreboding soundtrack, which uses “East Hastings” by Godspeed You Black Emperor to memorable effect in the early go.


Eamonn McCusker at DVD Times writes, “I can’t wholly recommend 28 Days Later as it just won’t be for everyone but it isn’t bad – no better, no worse, just not bad. It is, however, difficult to feel any greater reaction than simply saying that – it passes the time – but a socially aware zombie film, set in a post-apocalyptic Britain with relevant points to make as to how we are currently living our lives should make one feel and react to a rather greater extent. 28 Days Later is, sadly, a wasted opportunity.”

“Danny Boyle cannot be praised enough for trying something new within such a well-loved fan-fanatic genre as the zombie/apocalyptic horror film. True, 28 Days Later is not 100% successful, but when compared to other independent (or big budget) attempts at rewriting the living dead niche, it’s less of a video game and more of a personally moving motion picture. It gets its dread and despair down perfectly, and isn’t afraid to amplify the threat when necessary. There is something compact and contained about the film, with just enough of a ring of truth to turn a ‘what if’ into a ‘when,’” writes Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “28 Days Later leaves many questions unanswered, many ideas unexplained, and doesn’t really hold up to scientific scrutiny. It requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to give the creators the benefit of the doubt. It is recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction, zombie flicks, and those who have been disillusioned with the paltry amounts of intelligent horror films to come out in recent years. Yes, it’s complete nonsense, but completely riveting at the same time.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Military

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Aug 31, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    “Requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief”. That’s putting it mildly! This is one of my daughter’s favorite films, but I was just….bored. I liked some of the characters, but I thought the movie just didn’t work on so many levels. How could so much have gone wrong, but everything looks empty….but so clean? This was definitely not my cup of tea. Oh, wait, I don’t drink tea!

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 1, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: I think your comments could apply to the sequel 28 Weeks Later, but I was not taken out of the story by suspension of disbelief. I believed plants had taken over the world in Day of the Triffids and accepted the reality presented here. As for tea, how you could live in the South and not drink it is beyond me! However, as always, I appreciate your comments here.

  • 3 AR // Sep 18, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I loved it, still need to see the sequel. For me, it really only tripped up during the last quarter or so of the film with the military film. I just didn’t care for the direction the story took.
    Otherwise, yup, I totally agree.

  • 4 Mark // Nov 6, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    One of my favoutite films ever. But considering that there has been a national disaster you’d think London would be littered with crashed cars and bodies but for some reason its totaly empty. And why, at the start when Jim is wandering around London is there a Mercedies parked in the middle of a junction with its doors locked, surley if the situation was so bad the driver would not have had the time to bother locking his doors ? But aside from some minor things i’d give it a 8/10

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