THE BEACH is one of my favorite all-time books; certainly, I would place it in my ever-rotating top five, along with stalwarts AMERICAN PSYCHO and BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. Alex Garlands novel captured for me the essence of something that had always been lacking in my life a desire to travel the world and almost literally do whatever I wanted. Throw consequence out the window. Prior to reading the novel I was not really aware that this void existed, but it did. This global excursion is something that is still omitted from my thirty-one year itinerary, but I am hopeful that I can correct this within the next five years or so. Of course, Ill be more likely to be propped up by a zimmer frame than a fistful of Thailand’s finest marihuana, but thats the price you pay for hesitation.
Danny Boyle, whose body of work includes the excellent SHALLOW GRAVE, the slightly overrated TRAINSPOTTING and the pretty dismal LIFE LESS ORDINARY, did his best with THE BEACH but didn’t really do the source material complete justice. Partly, this was because Garland didn’t get to do the screenplay, and while THE BEACH is not the bad film that many people make it out to be, it is sloppy in places and borderline awful in others.
When Garland was writing the screenplay for 28 DAYS LATER, he set out to make the definitive zombie movie. Predominately, he was never happy with the way the zombies moved in films like DAWN OF THE DEAD; slow, cumbersome and, lets face it, pretty easy to evade, the genre had become stale and unimaginative. While George A. Romeros DEAD trilogy is an all-time classic, it paved the way for a series of unimaginative copycat rip-offs that basically took the source material and just changed a few things one of which, unfortunately, wasnt the typically lame acting. Horror gems they may be, but Romeros series, and any other zombie film you can name, are never going to be held up as examples of the finer side of the craft. (Indeed, DAY OF THE DEAD took horror movie acting to a new low point.)
Quite. This realization of the zombie has become so defined that its now seen as humorous. It was time for a change, and in 28 DAYS LATER, Garland and Boyle have produced not only a first-class piece of horror, but also easily the best British horror film of all time, and quite possibly the greatest zombie film ever made. While I realize that that final comment might be taken as pure heresy by Romero fans, Im sticking to my guns. In my opinion, this is the best zombie flick ever made.
Except these aren’tt really zombies. But well get to that a bit later.
The movie opens with disturbing footage of chimpanzee experimentation in a laboratory. One chimp in particular is having a rough time of it, his synapses wired up to be bombarded around the clock by footage of mayhem, death and destruction, beamed at him from a number of small television monitors. This cant be good, you quickly realise, and I was more than happy to see our primate brethren receive an unplanned visit from the Animal Liberation Front (or the ALF not to be confused with the small, furry alien creature that Jim Henson spewed upon popular culture in the 1980s). But this quickly transpires into what appears to be a poorly researched, ill-conceived attempt to rescue the poor buggers. Its evident that the ALF have no idea exactly what kind of experimentation is taking place subsequently, their intervention will prove to be catastrophic. Early warning of this is provided by the reactions of the beasts to their new guests rapidly, they become hostile, noisy and violent. Thank God for the invention of the cage.
Aside from the primates, the lab is deserted when the ALF arrive, but a lone scientist quickly discovers their presence. He is easily overpowered, but warns them to not interfere: the animals have been infected with a new form of virus rage. The ALF arent having any of it, one of the chimpanzees is released, and before you can whisper Cujo under your breath, its all turned very nasty indeed.
Twenty-eight days pass. Fast-forward to a hospital room; a patient, gaunt and bearded, wakes from what appears to be a lengthy period of rest, his body strapped to an assortment of medical paraphernalia. Complete silence. He unhooks himself and leaves the room; the hospital appears to be deserted. More eerily, there are signs of hostility and panic; vending machines are overturned and broken open, telephones are left swinging from their handsets, endless rows of doors are ajar.
Outside, its even more desperate. London, the center point of British culture and life, the nations capital and home to a population of seven million is lifeless. Empty. Deserted. He walks across Tower Bridge and throughout the city. Hello? the patient shouts. No answer. Nada. Nobody is home.
Finally, he comes across a church. THE END OF THE WORLD IS EXTREMELY FUCKING NIGH is spray-painted on the wall of the stairs that lead up to the balcony. Once there, he looks out over the auditorium at a gruesome sight piles and piles of bodies lay across and on top of each other. There must be sixty people here. Are they dead, or still alive?
Suddenly, two figures sit up, and grunt, their eyes zooming in and focusing immediately on the source of the word. Then, behind him, additional noises behind a door. Someone is coming. The door creeps open the priest. His movements are exaggerated and volatile, and its quickly apparent that something is not quite right as he staggers up the corridor.
But all too quickly he is almost upon him, and now the horror is realized. This is no ordinary man, this priest. His eyes are red with fury and lust, and his hands reach out to seize our man. He battles the priest to the ground, but still he comes, scratching and clawing across the floor, reaching out for his prize. Quickly, were out the back door and back onto the street, and the chase is on. More people come from the church, their bodies twitching with the same uncontrollable urges. They look like people, and they run and jump like people; but they’re tireless, absolutely focused and in total pursuit of their prey.
Sanctuary, at least in part; now the creatures are under attack, two of them engulfed in flames by petrol-bombs thrown from unseen quarters. Keep running! yells a new voice, This way. Hurry!
Our hero tracks down the voices source: two figures, dressed in black. He runs towards them, the creatures relentless in their chase. Even the flames arent slowing them. Keep running! Finally, he catches up with the pair, and some well-thrown bombs take out a petrol station, the surrounding neighborhood, and a number of the bloodthirsty horde. The threesome scurry down some stairs deep into the belly of the London underground and into the small store of a tube vendor long abandoned and seal themselves inside.
Brief introductions are made. Jim, our patient, is introduced to Mark and Selena. Mark is good-humored and friendly; Selena possesses the manners of a coroner and is as cold as his work. Jim, previously a bicycle courier, remembers nothing up to a car pulling out in front of him while making a delivery. Its quickly established that this was four weeks previously, and that Jim has been in a lengthy coma. Selena realizes that Jim must be starving, and urges him to eat. He can have anything he likes as long as its chocolate. But Jim wants more than food; he wants answers.
Selena explains that four weeks ago reports began to surface of riots and other violent outbreaks around the country. At first, the stories were generally ignored. That is, until they stopped being reported on television, and started happening outside your house, coming through your window, and into your living room. People had become infected, plagued by a terrible virus that bent them into tortured, mindless, bloodthirsty beasts, roaming the countryside in packs to find and consume the clean. The virus has no cure, and is passed almost immediately by blood or saliva; a single drop infects the recipient within twenty seconds. In that time, Selena explains, you have to kill them. It may be the only chance you have.
The comprehension of this naturally bottlenecks within Jim: what about his parents, his friends? They’re all dead, Selena explains. Jim cant accept this so readily. He has to know for sure. At daybreak, the three head back to Jims house, and he enters it alone. He walks upstairs to his parents room, and finds them both lying together in bed. Both Dead. His mother clutches on to a picture of Jim as a young child. On the back is a note:
We left you there sleeping.
Now were sleeping with you.
Dont wake up.
Love, Mum and Dad.
Darkness falls, and Selena suggests it will be safer for them to sleep at Jims house. He agrees, but finds himself very much awake while the other two rest. He walks around the house and back through the memories of his parents, and of their time together. His thoughts are slightly more than disturbed when a figure comes crashing through the window, intent on tearing him apart. Knocked to the floor, he struggles to fight it off, and cries out for assistance. Selena and Mark enter and attempt to beat the creature off, but Mark is pinned back and badly mauled. Finally, the infected man is killed, and Selena hurries over to Jim: Are you bitten? she asks. He isnt, but Mark is. Selena picks up her machete.
No, please wait
Selena tells Jim they have to leave now. They scavenge whatever rations they can, and hurry out of the house. Out on the street, Jim notices a flashing light high up in a tower block. With nowhere else to go, the two head up inside, climbing over a seemingly random stack of abandoned supermarket shopping trolleys. Naturally, there’s a lot of stairs, and they begin the long ascent. About halfway up, they hear running and scraping below, and look down two of the infected and followed them in and are racing rapidly up the stairs, grunting and snarling. Selena starts moving even faster, as does Jim, but he cant keep pace. Don’t leave me, Selena. Please! he screams out. They keep running. Suddenly, up ahead, a figure emerges, dressed in black and wearing what appears to be riot gear; certainly, he brandishes a police riot shield. Quickly, this way, he says, as Jim hears those words for the second time in as many days.
Jim and Selena hurry past him and to a room down the hall. The door is locked, and they bang on it with urgency. A voice inside: Wheres my dad?. Finally, the door opens, and they scurry inside. Meanwhile, the infected are quickly dispatched, and what was two has become four: meet Frank, and his daughter Hannah.
Frank explains how he and Hannah have become completely self-dependent. They have food and some power, and have managed to survive over the four weeks with no major draw downs. Their only main problem has been water; for some time Frank has managed to draw fluid from the boilers and other sources around the building, but this has quickly ran down. His attempts to secure fresh supplies from rainwater have proved futile; it hasnt rained for ten days. The irony is so thick you can write on it, and it spells one word: death. Their choices are limited; either they stay and die, or they can risk the outside world. It isnt all so cut and dry; using a clockwork-powered radio, Frank reveals his one source of hope. A single army transmission repeats twenty-four hours a day, offering promises of a cure and the use of resources. A blockade number is included, and this is traced to Manchester. Frank thinks their only chance is to find this army unit. Reluctantly, Jim and Selena agree, and together the four set off on their quest.
Along the way, they will face the infected, each other, and mankind, as the realization of their fate slowly dawns upon them.
Where 28 DAYS LATER truly succeeds is in the way that Alex Garland has managed to avoid virtually all of your stand horror, and particularly zombie-horror, stereotypes. Clearly, the zombies themselves are very different. While they are not truly zombies per set this isnt the walking dead, or the undead for all intents and purposes this is a zombie movie in the sense that they are a focused, bloodthirsty pack of post-humans who are intent on consuming the living and, at the same time, spreading the infection by happy accident. And these fuckers are fast. Theyre running and jumping like a person, but its a tireless, focused, obsessed, hungry one. Its very much a return to the hunter of old but this time its man hunting man. With skewed odds.
The speed that the infection breeds is also a pioneering step; if this continues, then no longer will we have to sit through half an hour of tedium as we await for the character that we know has been bitten or scratched, but whose injuries are maybe unknown to his friends, to change into a zombie and attack one or all of them. I think this has been done in every film, and whilst RESIDENT EVIL attempted to replay this scene with some humor and originality, it was still principally the same thing. And you sit there watching this, knowing exactly what is going to happen, and its become a total cliché and I for one would be happy to see it end. It 28 DAYS LATER, you have to wait, oh, all of ten to twenty seconds, and usually the recipient has been long-since dispatched before this period has expired. Its good, its amazingly refreshing, and I hope that the penny drops.
Yet, the improvements in the film go beyond this simple adjustment of zombie character.
The cinematic score is quite simply outstanding. I dont think Ive ever seen a film of this type use different musical mediums to such an amazing effect there is no RESIDENT EVIL Marilyn Manson pseudo-rock number blasting out of the speakers every ten minutes. Instead, we are treated to a variety of different pieces, from gentle, choir singing to full-on, orchestral violence. It works incredibly well, and John Murphy, who produced the original music for the film, should be applauded.
Boyle has also wisely avoided flagging scare-scenes in the standard way. That being by the use of JAWS or PSYCHO style musical set-ups that inform the audience that something bad is about to happen. In those films, it was original and innovative. In modern cinema, its a total cliché, and it offsets the impact of a great scene. In real life, nobody gives you a warning that something is going to happen, and I dont recall too many instances when Ive been enlightened to an impending disaster by the sound of violins or a booming base. There are times in 28 DAYS LATER when you feel that something is happening, that the music is warning you, but nothing transpires. Other times, you are shocked by an unnatural event during a period of near-silence. As a result, you’re pretty much on the edge of your seat for the entire time. Great stuff.
The real life comment above is relevant, as this is what, in my mind, makes 28 DAYS LATER work better than any other zombie movie. It feels like real life. It feels like this could happen, somewhere between the end of RESIDENT EVIL and the beginning of 12 MONKEYS. These are ordinary people; they’re not super-soldiers or beings in possession of incredible weapons or gifts. They could be you and me. As such, they’re confused and frightened, and seriously lacking in weaponry and even basic survival tools. At no time does anyone expect an Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear and right all wrongs, and even when our heroes are doing well, there is underlying feeling of doom and even pointlessness swimming within their thinly veiled grip on hope. They, and we, are fully aware that there is nothing to be done to offset this terrible plague. This cannot possibly be reversed. In the back of your mind, you wonder, with all that you know is it really worth going on?
Most refreshingly, as stated, Boyle has managed to shrug off that most horrific of zombie crimes lousy acting and 28 DAYS LATER beings out superb performances from a pretty-much unknown cast. Certainly these British faces arent going to be familiar to U.S. audiences, with the possible exception of Chris Eccleston (GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS and SHALLOW GRAVE), although I fear that most would be pressed to place him. Cillian Murphy stands out as Jim, our main focal point and source for the bulk of the films emotion and desperation, and deserves to become a star after this movie, if only for the enormous amount of weight he must have lost to prepare for the role of a man who awakes from four-week coma. Through his eyes were privy to a world that we have never seen, of a once-bustling London reduced to the rustle of torn newspapers that twist in the uneven wind. The scenes of a deserted London are simply breathtaking; the patience and work involved in the filming of pieces of this movie must have been enormous. Throughout, there is a real sense of loneliness, but somehow it also all feels very claustrophobic specifically, as the characters are generally bolted up in very small areas for safety. These are very desperate times. Its a world where money has no value, and where are thoughts would continuously focus on food, shelter and friendship. Murphys character is the film, and while this performance will go completely unrecognised by the Academy and their less-important ilk around the world, for Murphy not to move beyond here into stardom would be nothing less of a cinematic travesty.
Much like RESIDENT EVIL did before it, but in a very different way, 28 DAYS LATER impresses with its two strong female leads. Naomie Harris brings a lot of heart to her role as Selena. We grow with her character as she grows, and warm to her as she begins to warm. At first, she is detached and meticulous it is the only way she knows how to survive but as the horror of the world begins to engulf them all, each character finds a new level of hope, only for it to be shot down again. Its an endless process of building and rebuilding, and Harris is totally convincing in this role. Likewise, Megan Burns as the teenage Hannah, puts in a fantastic performance, playing Harriss role almost in reverse. At first, Hannah is your typical teenager, headstrong, resilient, and seemingly oblivious to the situation around her. Yes, she’s all too aware of the danger, but appears to be keeping life on an even keel. That is, until little pieces of her life begin to unravel, forcing her to look at the world through fresh eyes. Slowly, she begins to retreat back inside herself.
Brendan Gleeson, whose best-known role is probably Sheriff Hank Keough in LAKE PLACID, is also solid in his role as Hannahs father, Frank. Gleeson brings a few moments of light comedy to the movie, which are refreshing, and much-needed amidst so much darkness.
For the most part, the film lacks the endless, somewhat tiresome gore of the Romero films. Whilst the DEAD trilogy will always be a fan favorite, and rightly so, you do wonder if, on occasion, much like the Italian horror movies of the 1970s, that this is more about how graphic the horror can be, as opposed to, say, lesser elements like the plot or the characterization. Sure, there is some gruesome stuff in 28 DAYS LATER Ill say one word: eyeballs but for the most part its nicely balanced and it feels like it was necessary. (My only exception to this is the scene with Jim and the boy; I felt this was pointless, both in Jims reasoning for entering the diner, but also for the end result.)
No film is ever going to be flawless. Whilst, as I suggested above, it avoids most of the major horror and zombie pitfalls, it does fall into a few. The biggest being the hunger of the creatures themselves why is it in zombie films that the zombies always know only to attack and eat the living (or in this case, the uninfected)? What, do they have some kind of sixth sense that were not privy to, that is never explained? Why do they only go after other humans, and not animals? Insects? If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re hungry and mindless, you eat anything. And that would include each other.
Speaking of animals, where were they? Aside from a few birds, some rats and some horses, I dont believe I saw a single other species. Where were the dogs and cats? OK, they might be wiped out, but what about bodies? I think that in an epidemic of this kind the streets of London would be absolutely littered with the corpses of both man and beast.
And the infected; I think there should have been more of them. Twenty-eight days is not an awfully long time (although its long enough for one flaw see later) and I think in that time you’d have an awful lot of infected people roaming the streets. Sure, some of them were dispatched in various ways fires (as explained), being chopped up, shot, generally maimed etc. but I think there would still be a lot more left. And I also think they’d have been more humans left. Im no expert on biological weaponry, but four weeks doesn’tt seem long enough to do this kind of damage. I could be wrong.
The ending of the movie was a little anti-climactic. For a good hour, the pace and tension was so high that I had a hard time calming down it was that good, unfortunately assisted by an ill-advised cheeseburger sitting in my stomach like a two-pound brick but for fifteen minutes or so it kind of fizzled out when our surviving group got to the army base. It came together at the end, but I felt it was a shame to lose the frantic pace that the movie had established, and in such a good, original way.
Be warned; the film, for the most part, ends bleakly. As mentioned above there isnt really a sliver of hope in 28 DAYS LATER. Its more about the survival of a core band of individuals than of the human race as a whole. That’s been pretty much taken care of, and even though the film attempts to offer some salvation I think that its short-sighted. Something this big, this severe, cant be held back by anything, even the vastness ocean. And that’s mankind’s fault as well.
28 DAYS LATER isnt for people who think SCREAM is the epitome of modern horror, or for someone who likes their horror served up on a predictable, well-polished silver plate. DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? is your favorite movie? Give this one a miss. You’ll find it slow and boring and too gory and all the other repetitions used by people who don’t like good horror movies. There are no teenage, screaming nymphomaniacs. There is no scene where a girl decides to investigate the strange noise in the basement alone only to meet her not-so-unexpected demise. There is no A-list cast or muscle-bound superhero type to save the day. This is about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation; how will they cope? Can they cope? For two hours of near-perfection, you get to find out.