2003 has seen its fair share of horror movies, and so far it's been a pretty weak year. House of 1000 Corpses was frightening and sickening at the same time, Darkness Falls was a joke, and while Wrong Turn had its moments, overall it was pretty unscary. Luckily for horror fans, the long awaited North American release of director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is finally upon us. The film's trailer and television ads have been fairly basic and non-descriptive in nature. How does the film hold up? Let's find out.
Set in modern England, the film opens with a brief prologue at an animal testing facility somewhere outside London. The scientists at the facility are testing a group of monkeys who are unusually violent. Trying to set the animals free, a group of activists break into the facility and manage to gain control. Despite repeated warnings from the scientists on guard that the monkeys are carrying a new virus named "RAGE", the group sets the animals free to roam England. 28 Days pass and the entire English countryside has become infected with the virus, leaving very little in the way of human survivors. Bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in an abandoned hospital to find life much different then from what he last remembered. He walks around the empty streets of London without much success, occasionally running into strung out zombie like figures deemed the enraged. Before long he finds a group of human survivors lead by Selena (Naomie Harris), a tough no-nonsense warrior looking out only for herself. Also in this group is Mark (Noah Huntley), who has been helping her in any way he can. Selena explains that she will do whatever it takes to stay alive and that she will kill Jim if need be. It comes as no surprise that when Mark becomes infected she kills him to save herself. The twosome continue without a plan until they break into a building where they find two more survivors; an ex-cabbie named Frank (Brendan Gleason) and his young daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). As luck would have it, Frank hears a faint radio broadcast that promises salvation to those who are uninfected. Reluctantly, the four of them begin the trek to a distant military base located on the outskirts of Manchester. At their arrival, they meet Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone). It's here where things take a turn for the worse.
28 Days Later is really two distinct films rolled together into one. The first part of the film focuses on how a virus can impact and take total control of an entire city in a short amount of time. The second part, which occurs when the survivors arrive at the military base, plays as some sort of ritualistic survival technique where the females are given a simple choice and the males left with no option at all. The females are given the choice of trying to stay alive and fight off the infected set on a thirst for human blood or continue the human species by acting as surrogates for a number of horny soldiers. It's here, during this second act, that the film began to lose me and thoughts of the rest of my day began to come to mind.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and screenwriter Alex Garland worked together on The Beach, which also contained some plot-related issues. The shift in focus in 28 Days Later doesn't work very well, as it seems that Garland was just unsure where next to take his characters. They had already escaped numerous groups of infected people and there were already human causalities. This was very much a cooler and much more bleak version of Resident Evil, with little hope if any for mankind. Then it takes a step backwards and goes off on a sort of different tangent, that while still related to human survival is just a bit more unnerving and not in a good way. In terms of horror movies and the sub-genre the film falls into, it does a very successful job. Despite the fact that I've referenced them by calling them zombies, these are not mutants. These are human beings who are not out to suck your blood, they are out to kill you. They have been infected by a deadly and psychological virus and will do nothing until everyone is just like them. Boyle and Garland also offer the viewer very little in the way of answers to the numerous questions posed in the film. Are these people alone? Has the infection spread outside of London, and is there any hope for human survival, or is it just a matter of time until the world is infected? The film plays on these questions and unnerves at a much more subliminal level.
Stylistically, director Danny Boyle has decided to shoot the film on digital video, which allows the film to maintain a much more unpolished and gritty appearance. It's safe to say that the film looks like crap. Colors are extremely muted, sharpness is severely lacking, much of the action is shrouded in darkness with very little light, and things generally are as unpleasing as can be. This helps the film retain a level of realism in that this footage could have been shot by your next door neighbor and looks as though it could happen at anytime. The problem is, it's just downright hard to look at in places. I was warned going in that the DV-shot film might cause a headache, so I compensated by sitting further back than I normally would have. This helped a bit, but I still came out of the film with a slight headache due to the visual style. Now I'm not saying that I would have shot this film on 35mm, because it would be very hard to capture the same look and feel on that much more defined format, but the degraded video look does have both its pluses and minuses. Perhaps taking some Tylenol to the theater might help.
From a casting point of view, the film is populated by a bunch of British actors who's work I'm fairly unfamiliar with. This in a way helps the film in that these people are just everyday type human beings who for the most part I'm not thinking of as actors. In the lead role of Jim the wounded bike courier is Cillian Murphy, who has 15 credits to his name at IMDB.com, including 2001's Disco Pigs. Murphy has a lot to deal with in the film as he awakens from a tragic accident to find the world completely different than it was. He's confused and uneasy, and unsure of how to handle himself. Murphy's portrayal is spot on and works very well for the film. Also worth mentioning is Naomie Harris's Selena, a freedom fighter who's given up hope of returning to normalcy. The most recognizable actor to North American audiences is Brendan Gleason, who appeared in Gangs of New York, AI : Artificial Intelligence, and The Tailor of Panama. Gleason brings a level of caring to the proceedings as he hopes his daughter will be able to lead a normal life.
28 Days Later is a strong effort from writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle in that it's more than just a simple run-of-the-mill horror film. It contains its fair share of jump moments, scenes of extreme violence, and gore but above all that, it's a horror movie of a different sort. It's scary because it presents ideas and concepts that are all very plausible in our modern world. With recent outbreaks of SARS and the Mad Cow disease, and to a lesser extent the Anthrax threat after 9-11, we live in an age where biological and chemical warfare could be used to turn this world on its end. The film does tend to fall apart towards the 70-80 minute marker, and the last third isn't nearly as strong and focused. Still, when most of the horror that hits the big screen is aimed at teenagers who want a cheap scare, this film scares in an entirely different way and that is a very good thing.
Horror fans have been looking forward to this film for some time, and in fact North America is one of the last major territories in the world to receive 28 Days Later. The film was released in the UK earlier in 2002 and can even be found on Region 2 DVD. Eager fans who may have checked the film out on disc should try and get out to the theater and support the film so that more films like this get released domestically. 28 Days Later isn't a wide release and it won't be plastered on 2000+ screens, however it is one of the smartest and creepiest horror films to come out in some time and is well worth a look both for fans of the genre and fans of film in general. Those looking for a good scare need not look any further then 28 Days Later.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.