Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson
Release date: June 27, 2003 (U.S. theatrical)
I was raised on zombie movies. The first horror movie that ever truly terrified me was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), which I watched behind my parents' back, in their bedroom one Saturday night when my older brother was supposed to be keeping an eye on me but wasn't. It was an old VHS copy I found buried deep within the hallway closet, and the film seemed like forbidden fruit. The hook was instant, giving way to my hunting down every zombie movie ever made. Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979), and then every other gruesome Fulci picture. The hammy but strangely unsettling Italian oddity Burial Ground. All of those The Return of the Living Dead films, including the shitty second one where a ghoul who's inexplicably dressed up as Michael Jackson dances as its being electrocuted. Even Michael Jackson's Thriller fair game.
Nothing I'd seen prior, though, had prepared me for Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. This was a new kind of zombie movie, one in which, technically, the antagonists aren't quite zombies. They're infected English folks, stricken with an extremely contagious and deadly virus stemming from lab-tested chimpanzees. And these zombies, or "the infected," were unbelievably fast—as in, moving at speeds that made the running corpses in the original The Return of the Living Dead seem like David Ortiz rounding first base. As directed by Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) who was on the comeback trail following the 2000 dud The Beach, 28 Days Later roared with a singular intensity. The cinematography, all naturalistic and gritty, brought Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's "Dogme 95" aesthetic into horror (credit Boyle's cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a Dogme veteran), crackling like old vinyl on the screen, looking like the grimiest camcorder footage imaginable. Boyle's unruly edits and cuts kept his zombies largely obscured, save for the occasional close-up of their glowing red eyes.
One thing was obvious: These weren't Romero's or Fulci's breed of once-human monsters. Boyle, along with screenwriter Alex Garland, had reinvented my beloved horror sub-genre.
And it scared the you-know-what out of me. To this day, 28 Days Later remains a one-of-a-kind knockout. Boyle wastes no time going for the jugular, opening the film with a claustrophobic and nightmarish prologue during which a group of well-meaning animal liberation activists unknowingly unleash the apocalypse, and leading into one of those rare moments of breathtaking cinema we so rarely encounter. Hospitalized bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in an empty, messy emergency ward, stumbles through the hospital's ramshackle halls, and ventures out into the streets of London, but something's not right—there aren't any people. Jim's all alone, to the point where you think it's just Cillian Murphy and Danny Boyle, by themselves, having somehow cleared the streets of one of the world's busiest cities.
How Boyle transfers Jim's sense of loneliness and disbelief onto the audience is remarkable. So when he's suddenly blasted by what's really going on, via s chance run-in with an infected priest inside a body-ridden church, the audience is just as rattled as he is. Just like that, the film's pin-drop-quiet desolation is violently replaced by run-and-gun hysteria.
The stylistic madness never lets up, but Boyle and Garland don't preoccupy themselves with only the horror. 28 Days Later is strikingly character-driven, devoting as much time to its terrifying set-pieces as its desperate, disparate survivors. In addition to the gradually heroic Jim, there's Selena (Naomie Harris), a tough badass who's been made warrior-like by her surroundings—you get the sense that, at her heart, she's warm, but she's not able to be that way. Unlike Frank (Brendan Gleeson), the jolly father of teenager Hannah (Megan Burns) who goes out of his way to be pleasant because, well, their bleak world needs that from him. Together, the film's quartet of good-guy characters form a band of unlikely comrades that's easy to root for, and, since 28 Days Later is a horror story, impossible not to sympathize with when one of them dies.
28 Days Later is a film of two distinct halves. The first establishes the situation and brings the aforementioned foursome together; the second half, set on the grounds of a mansion overtaken by a malevolent, all-male group of soldiers, owes much to George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), an influence that both Boyle and Garland have publicly acknowledged. And for that, it's slightly less effective than 28 Days Later's first section, though it's still powerful and unpredictable. Besides, Day of the Dead is one of my personal favorite zombie movies. Any allusions to it are welcome—overt homages from a gifted filmmaker like Danny Boyle are a living dead fan's dream come true.
In those later scenes, particularly when that "Bub"-like ghoul turns on its former military colleagues, 28 Days Later briefly feels like those zombies I grew up watching and adoring. They bridge the gap between classic Romero and new-age Boyle. And through that, on top of the film's overall excellence, 28 Days Later achieves "all-time greatest zombie movies" status. —Matt Barone