28 Days Later came out in 2002, it was perceived as a welcome breath of fresh air in the horror and science fiction genres which had become stagnant and predictable. It proved that in the best tradition of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Halloween (1978), the most effective horror films are made independently, and that they can scare us while also making us think. 28 Days Later is generally considered to be a post-apocalyptic science fiction film — after all, the premise involves Great Britain ravaged by a highly contagious virus and follows the adventures of four survivors. However, director Danny Boyle shoots his film in a way that shifts from ominous feelings of dread to outright sweaty-palmed terror reminiscent of George Romero’s zombie films albeit on speed.
28 Days Later struck a nerve not just among horror fans but moviegoers in general and was a surprise success. The inevitable sequel followed, but instead of going for an easy, quickie film that coasts on the reputation of its predecessor, 28 Weeks Later (2007) uses the effects of the virus outbreak and the government’s reaction to it as a commentary on real-life bureaucratic reactions to Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. Even more impressively, 28 Weeks Later is a rare sequel that is as good if not better than its predecessor.
In 28 Days Later, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital 28 days after three animal activists broke into the Cambridge Primate Research Facility to free chimpanzees being experimented on but unwittingly released a virus known as Rage into British society. Unaware of what has transpired, Jim wanders the gloomily empty streets of downtown London trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Buses and trucks are overturned and abandoned while the normally clean streets are littered with trash and, in one instance, some money (although it’s pretty much useless now). Jim picks up a newspaper and quickly gets an inkling of what went down — the country has been evacuated as the Rage virus devastated the population.
Jim walks up the steps in a church and behind him someone has painted on the wall in large letters, “The end is extremely fucking nigh,” which sets just the right creepy tone. He walks into the chapel and it is packed with dead bodies like some kind of perverse variation on the Jonestown Massacre. He also encounters his first infected person as a priest rushes crazily at him and Jim barely escapes. In doing so, he encounters two other survivors who rescue him by torching a few infected people with Molotov cocktails but they keep on coming despite being transformed into human torches. Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris) fill Jim in on what has happened while he was in the hospital and how far the infection has spread. And so begins Jim’s quest to find other survivors and a safe haven to hold up until this epidemic plays out.
Boyle times his jolts well, like when Jim reflects on his dead parents in their home when suddenly two of their neighbors, out of their heads with the virus, come bursting in. Mark and Selena intervene but he gets some of the infected blood into a wound and that’s all it takes to become infected. She unhesitatingly hacks him to death with a machete in a truly horrifying scene. It’s not just the sudden nature of the attack but the brutal way in which Selena deals with Mark. She is a refreshingly practical character who lays it all out for Jim: “Plans are pointless. Staying alive’s as good as it gets.” When you’ve had to kill loved ones or watched them die, there isn’t much room for hope or romanticism and a survival instinct takes over.
Christopher Eccleston (The Others) and Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges). Eccleston, who appeared in Boyle’s first film Shallow Grave (1994), brings an edgy intensity to his role of a twisted military commander, while Gleeson plays a good-natured survivor with a daughter (Megan Burns) that Jim and Selena meet in London. Eccleston and Gleeson bring the necessary gravitas to their respective roles and this helps anchor the film.
Many reviewers mistakenly referred to the infected as zombies. They aren’t the lumbering undead; they’re infected — fast and very lethal. 28 Days Later was compared to George A. Romero’s Dead films, which, to a degree is apt because they both deal with post-apocalyptic societies struggling to survive against overwhelming odds. There are the obvious nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) with the carefree shopping spree in a deserted supermarket and the tense attempt to get gas at a seemingly deserted station. However, the Romero film 28 Days Later most closely echoes is The Crazies (1973) about a small community whose inhabitants are driven insane by a government created biological weapon. Boyle’s film is obviously on a much larger scale but some of the same ideas are explored, such as the disintegration of society as the result of government sanctioned experiments. As with Romero’s films, the military are not to be trusted as evident with Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) and his warped cure for the infected and the way he maintains order among the uninfected. He’s drunk on power, much like Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the military leader in Day of the Dead (1985).
28 Days Later is a powerful statement about how easily societal order can break down bringing out the best and worst in us. It presents characters we grow to care about and become emotionally invested in. The film also delivers the requisite thrills and genuine scares that are strategically positioned for maximum effect. 28 Weeks Later starts off with a bang as a small cottage of survivors living outside of London is attacked by a horde of the infected with only one person managing to escape. Donald Harris (Robert Carlyle) abandons his wife (Catherine McCormack) to save his own skin — a split-second decision he deeply regrets and which will have serious repercussions later on. Shaky, hand-held camerawork captures his desperate escape from the infected with incredible, frenetic intensity that quickly establishes the film’s grim tone. Don makes it to safety and is reunited with his two children, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), in London.
It is 28 weeks after the initial outbreak and all the infected have starved to death. The United States military have occupied London and are allowing refugees back in. Sound familiar? Shades of post-Katrina New Orleans anyone? Andy and Tammy defy the safety zone laws and return to their home to pick up some stuff. In the process, they are reunited with their mother who has been infected but for some unknown reason has not gone crazy like the others. In what will prove to be a fatal error in judgment, the military decide to study Don’s wife instead of destroying her outright. Once all hell breaks loose, Andy, Tammy, Scarlett (Rose Byrne), a doctor they meet, and Sergeant Doyle (Jeremy Renner), a soldier who helps them escape during the chaos of the new outbreak, try to find a way out of London.
Northern Ireland massacre in 1972.
28 Weeks Later is one of those all-bets-are-off horror films where you really don’t know who is going to live and who is going to die. There are safety zones, such as big name movie stars, that often indicate who will survive, but not in this film which only enhances the unbelievable tension that the filmmakers create. It is very rare that a sequel is as good as or better than the one that came before it — The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) come immediately to mind. The filmmakers behind 28 Weeks Later are not merely content to rehash the first film. They build on it and go off in new and exciting directions, expanding the world that was created in 28 Days Later.
Mike Nichols RIP - From my “Shock Cinema” interview with Austin Pendelton, 2007: SC: I think CATCH-22 is a masterpiece. AP: So do I.
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