I always say that I'm not a horror movie person, but I'm finding more and more that zombie movies are almost always an exception. I'd been wanting to watch 28 Days Later for quite a while, and thanks to VidAngel, I was recently enabled to do just that. And it didn't disappoint.
|When you wake up from a coma and no one's there... either you have no friends or it's the zombie apocalypse! Either way you have no friends.|
Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma after being hit by a car, to find himself completely alone in a trashed hospital -- in fact, seemingly alone in the entire city of London. Eventually he discovers some very aggressive people with red eyes who act like animals and chase him. He is rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) who explain the situation to him. People are infected (not technically zombies) with a virus called R.A.G.E. It's in their blood and in their saliva, and if you are bitten, or if even a drop of blood gets in your mouth, you turn within twenty seconds.
The screenplay was Alex Garland's first, and Danny Boyle directed, and those two make a great team and some good, memorable movies. The first thing I like about this movie is its zombies and its zombie rules. The infected are fast, malicious, and much smarter than your average zombie. And the ultra-quick turnover time immediately throws out that "Surprise! I was bitten two days ago!" cliche. It's not a bad cliche, but what it's traded in for here is way better: The idea that you might not have time to think before plowing down a loved one who is about to turn.
|Great thought, no? Selena's all for it.|
This feeds in to one of the movie's themes that, as Selena points out to Jim, living has suddenly become pointless, and the only thing worth anything in the world anymore is survival. How can you truly live if you might have to kill your companions with no warning? But later they throw in with a dad (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter (Megan Burns), and Selena and Jim see that if you have someone to care about, the chaos around you doesn't matter so much.
And these are the reasons why I love the zombie genre. Or rather, they are evidence of the one main reason I love the zombie genre: that the zombies and the chaos and the destruction of civilization automatically and effortlessly creates situation for characters to be put in that you could never find anywhere else. And through that you can develop characters, and explore ideas and truths from a different and heightened viewpoint.
It always comes down to character, doesn't it? This movie is effectively terrifying for plenty of technical reasons, but I'm going to spend most of the time talking about what Jim and his companions go through because ultimately there's no point in a movie being scary if there isn't at least one character involved who's worth rooting for. It doesn't hurt at all the he's played by one of my favorite actors, but Jim is a character that evokes thought and has a realistic kind of reluctant-hero journey that I love.
|Why are zombie movies such a good medium for exploring human nature?|
He starts out a little bit behind the curve. He's just a bike courier and everyone else he meets has already had 28 days of witnessing and getting used to their lives being turned upside down. Selena was probably a pretty average person before, but she's learned to be cold and detached. Jim is reluctant to become that kind of person. It doesn't even appear to be in his nature; he spends most of the movie tagging along and surviving off the coattails of the others. But he's the hero of this story so it has to happen, and circumstances keep pushing him towards a breaking point until finally he hits an ultimatum; become a full-on hero, or be a bad guy.
So of course he fulfills the heroic role -- and is scary good at it too, and is even cooler and more hardcore at it than Selena -- though that was mostly luck because that last sequence wouldn't have been nearly so cool if it weren't raining and he hadn't lost his shirt. (Zombie movies, right?) He was also pretty lucky to have an opportunity to escape being executed by the villainous rogue soldiers (who were led by Christopher Eccleston). But seriously, Cillian Murphy is fantastic, and I loved that he got to be not only the hero and main character, but also the good, average nice guy and the scary and volatile type person he's known for playing.
|There's no backdrop like a zombie apocalypse for creating complex grey-area heroes.|
Ending Spoilers -- next 4 paragraphs. So by the end Mark is long gone and Hannah's father dies at the end of the second act. That brings back the question of living vs. surviving as Jim thinks Hannah will be able to cope without her father, but Selena says she doesn't want her to have to cope, she wants her to be okay. Then the end happens; Jim rescues the girls from the soldiers, (so violently that Selena thinks he's infected but hesitates to kill him, effectively admitting that she cares for him which leads to kissing and an "aw"/"ew" moment). Then he is shot by Eccleston but survives and the three live happily in the country waiting for the infected to starve so they can be rescued. And they seem okay in their makeshift family. They not only survive, but they live. A surprisingly happy end in comparison with the abrasive darkness of the previous two hours maybe, but it wraps up that theme so well that I can't help but love it.
Alternate endings: There are three, and I'm mentioning them because they are included in my enjoyment of this story. Normally I'd ignore alternates but somehow the genre and the story's themes make me open to them in this case. In one, Jim dies from the gunshot wound. The girls try to save him but eventually walk away to an uncertain fate. Jim still becomes a hero (an important point in the film) but it does away with the living theme. In the second we don't see Jim die but he is just not present as the girls wait in the country. That one seems like the worst as it leaves everything a bit too unresolved.
|If leading characters are gonna die, it works best if we care about them first.|
The third alternate changes the entire third act: Hannah's father Frank turns, but instead of killing him, the three manage to subdue him. They explore a research facility for "the answer to infection" promised in the radio transmission (which in the other story line was a ruse from the soldiers, who are nonexistent here). They find a man behind a locked door and he tells them how to cure an infected. Blood transfusion. Jim's blood is the only match for Frank, giving Jim his hero-ultimatum moment which he passes, sacrificing himself for Hannah and her dad.
The end shows Selena, Hannah, and Frank being admitted into the locked room to await rescue; and Jim infected, strapped to the same table as the ape at the movie's beginning. Story telling wise, this is the most effective alternate. There's a neat full-circle thing going on, a good heroic journey for Jim (not as cool as the one used, but does end tragically), and the family is intact. However there was a huge plot hole that according to the movie's zombie rules, a blood transfusion would only succeed in infecting both people. So they used the right and best ending, but I did enjoy these on the side. I found them (minus the second) on YouTube. The first is filmed, but the third is just a storyboard. End of major Spoilers.
|The rainy attack sequence was just too good.|
So all that drama, character development, and surprisingly deep themes going on had a lot to do why I like this movie so much, but it's still all going on underneath a whole lot of zombie horror. The two sides find a balance and a harmony and work together to create the whole of what this movie is, and both sides would have been pointless without each other. The crazy zombie plot gave a platform for the drama and characters that then feed back into the action and gave it meaning.
The film's look and style (besides being distinctive to Danny Boyle) is gritty and almost even cheap looking -- while still having precise and artistic camera angles and shots -- giving it all a realistic rough and edgy feel that draws you in. The pacing felt non-stop but never crowded; the script is smart and not constantly filled up with profanity; and the heroes are involving and worth cheering for. Simultaneously defying and establishing modern zombie lore, 28 Days Later is a hard-hitting zombie movie that knows, understands, and boldly executes exactly what makes zombie movies great.