We all know that this Halloween will not look like other Halloweens from years past. And yet, the month of October waits for us all the same. It is about time we put the spirit of Halloween back into that abandoned department store that we call the year of 2020. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema have put together a curated, month-long series called Screen Screams. This time, we will be covering all things zombies. For tonight’s program, we have the movie that arguably brought the fast zombie to the mainstream: 28 Days Later.
With a new millennium comes many opportunities for storytellers to innovate a tried-and-true formula. But one question remains: how does one update something as formulaic as the zombie movie for the modern era? George A. Romero made three of them before the 2000s, and each one dived deep into societal issues and had enough bloody spectacle to satisfy anyone. Because of that, a filmmaker basically has to break new ground through the way a movie conveys its message instead of what the message is. As it turns out, it only took a few years for a horror film to break new ground in this very fashion. Not only does 28 Days Later deeply engage as a genre piece, but it also modernizes the zombie sub-genre like no other.
At first glance, it does not seem like the film does anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the premise that writer Alex Garland presents should be familiar to anyone who has seen at least one pandemic narrative. In the first scene, Garland informs several facts to the audience: the source of the deadly virus, the ease at which it spreads, and the outcome of those who get it. After that point, it turns into a survival story as it focuses on a survivor named Jim (Cillian Murphy). Along the way, he crosses paths with other survivors such as Selena (Naomie Harris) and does whatever he can to avoid getting killed. This results in the compassionate Jim making a few choices that force him to adopt the “every man for themselves” mentality.
However, 28 Days Later makes it clear that providing a novel scenario is not a high priority. This is not to say that the film offers the exact same stakes as your typical zombie movie, mind you. For decades, filmmakers have depicted the infected as creatures that only act on instinct. But normally, one can avoid these dangerous creatures so long as they take active measures to hide. This movie, on the other hand, does not give itself that breathing room. It’s one thing that the infected run towards their next target as soon as they catch a glimpse. It’s another thing that the infected can attack by literally crashing through the windows of a hideout. As such, there are far fewer places to hide than one would think, which only makes the situation more intense.
As notable as this element is, it is minor in comparison to what the film is up to visually. Quite honestly, it is in the visuals that the movie truly distinguishes itself from the pack. From the opening shot, it has an aesthetic more akin to a homemade movie than a professional production. Every shot has an absence of fine detail and all colors that are not red fail to stand out. In addition, it has all the ringing artifacts one would expect out of a poorly mastered video transfer. One does not need to know that cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shot this on consumer-grade standard definition cameras. The footage is ugly enough to speak for itself.
That said, looking like a traditional movie is the last thing that 28 Days Later wants to achieve. This is yet another example of director Danny Boyle having fun in the sandbox of a distinct genre. Usually, Boyle’s joy manifests in the form of oddball camera angles. The visual aesthetic may not come close to replicating the look of most films. Instead, the cinematic language resembles something quite common in the real world: security camera footage. Between the grubby video quality and the unconventional shot compositions, the film presents its world from a distance. This might seem like a bad thing, but it actually adds a level of authenticity it would not otherwise have. Through this method of staging scenes, the audience can observe the film’s reality on top of connecting with the characters.
It helps a lot that its characters develop in satisfying ways. Jim, in particular, makes for a strong protagonist because of how his initial confusion morphs into a deep sense of determination. Early on, the film shows him wandering around the empty streets of London as if he never been on Earth before. But at a later point, we see him kill an infected child right after the child pounces towards him. With this character shift, the film announces its message of “decisiveness is the true key to survival” with confidence. One can imagine a version of this where Jim’s subsequent actions would not make sense. But thanks to Murphy’s quiet performance and the gradual pace that Boyle and Garland develop Jim, it ends up feeling fully organic.
Elsewhere we have Selena, who has an equally transformative arc of her own. Based on her introduction, it seems like she is someone who would put the needs of herself over others. After all, one early scene shows her beating someone to death seconds after taking damage from a zombie encounter. And yet, that tough exterior withers away once she meets the kind Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Now that she is in the company of a young girl, she can relax and talk to someone with compassion. No longer does she have to tell herself to stay alert at every waking moment. Like Jim, this character gets a lot of mileage thanks to its performer, and I am happy this was the movie that put Harris on the map.
Could a film like 28 Days Later succeed with the gloss of a big-budget production? Perhaps so. At the very least, Burns’s stiffness as an actor means that there is room for improvement. However, if there was any project in which its technical warts are its defining features, this would be it. Sometimes, all you need for a sturdy horror movie to become one of the Capital-G Greats™ is to embrace the ugliness of its story. And given the level of commitment, this grubby style soon becomes fundamental to the film’s downbeat tone. Truth be told, I am not 100% ready to call this Boyle’s masterpiece. However, it would not surprise me if I settled on that take a few years (or even a few months) from now. – Mark Tan
28 Days Later is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, and Brendan Gleeson.