With the plethora of zombie films populating the horror section, Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” stands out for several reasons. It’s a heavily debated subject whether the villains are even zombies. Technically they’re suffering from the Rage virus, but they exhibit telltale signs of the undead. For all intensive purposes, the infected are zombies. However, what makes Boyle’s 2002 thriller a frightening experience is the way it mixes genres, develops characters, and ultimately depicts humanity as more menacing than the braindead hordes running rampant.
A group of animal rights radicals breach a secure medical facility and begin liberating chimpanzees. A distraught scientist (David Schneider) pleads with them not to, warning that the chimps are suffering from the Rage virus. Not heeding his warnings, they let the monkey loose prompting the infection of all in the room. 28 days later, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma in St. Thomas’ Hospital. Venturing from his bed he discovers all of London barren.
While chased by a group of infected, Jim is saved by Selena (Naomie Harris) and her companion Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim wishes to visit his parents’ home, and while there lights a candle. The infected break into the house and Mark contracts the Rage virus, necessitating his death at the hands of Selena. Jim and Selena, while wandering about London, find another pair of survivors, Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). At Frank’s urging, the four venture into the countryside in search of a purported military checkpoint.
For fairly simplistic designs, the infected in “28 Days Later” are terrifying. Kiss the slow, lumbering zombies goodbye, and say hello to sprinting, wild-eyed, blood-soaked horrors. They’re really menacing, and the rapid panting only serves to instill more fear. Yet as chilling as their depiction, the infected are shamed by the military. Seeking shelter and protection, Jim, Selena, and Hannah are greeted by a much more terrifying foe. It’s this hopelessness for humanity that makes “28 Days Later” so successful. The enemy that chooses its actions is a greater threat than the unthinking animal.
While it often gets lumped into the horror category, “28 Days Later” is really a drama with horror aspects tacked on. The characters are beautifully developed, and they exhibit a lot of emotion, which is natural in the aftermath of such destruction. Jim grieves the loss of his parents, and even the hardened Selena, though she tries to mask it, shows her distress after Mark dies. There’s a great ebb and flow, with bleaker scenes as well as upbeat moments. When Frank, Hannah, Selena, and Jim begin the trek toward the checkpoint, we witness a decidedly hopeful sequence. They stock up on goods from a grocery store, camp in the idyllic countryside, and their demeanors visibly improve.
Danny Boyle’s creation is just an all-around good film. The cinematography is captivating with some genuinely jaw-dropping shots sure to have you grasping for the pause button. One scene films Jim in the background while a row of pay phones swing from their cords. Another looks down from behind a mess of wires on a telephone poll. Musically, there’s a haunting score by composer John Murphy. Jim’s exploration of abandoned London is set to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings,” which begins slowly then builds to a manic, pulse-pounding crescendo. It seems to capture Jim’s state of confusion and panic. A unique zombie (or zombie-esque) film, and moreover a horror flick that will actually leave you with deeper thoughts on humanity’s survival, it’s an artsy, entertaining thrill ride.