It’s time to close out our month of thrills, chills, and kills in the October movie roundup for 2016. After we started with ghouls in a Western in Bone Tomahawk, Keith recommended two oldies that took us from a spooky wager in The House on Haunted Hill to the possessed Hands of Orlac. Death and un-death have occupied a central role throughout the month, and it’s no different in this week’s recommendation, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
Cillian Murphy plays Jim, a bicycle courier who awakens in a hospital after 28 comatose days to an eerily quiet and empty London on a beautiful morning. We haven’t had much by the way of prologue: the opening scene showed only that three animal rights activists broke into a laboratory and released a chimp over a scientist’s protest, warning them of the ‘rage’ with which it had been ‘infected.’ After the chimp bit the activist, she soon descended into rabid, frenzied violence.
So, when Jim awakes from his coma, naked and alone, he knows about as much as we do while he walks past London’s landmarks. Small hints pepper the landscape, and we begin to piece together the story from the intervening four weeks… life didn’t disappear altogether, as revealed by the headlines adorning the now-abandoned newspaper kiosk that read “Evacuation.” The entire opening is haunting and beautiful. For someone who grew up in London, I was deeply touched and impressed at Boyle’s novel representation of the city. I’ve posted a clip from those scenes, rather than a trailer, below.
The mood slips comfortably between eeriness, curiosity, and eventually horror when Jim happens upon the first sign of life in a local church. The sounds of rustling disturb someone who had reposed below, but the response is not as Jim had hoped. The priest behaves just as the activists in the prologue had done, and is subdued only after Jim reluctantly defends himself from the attack.
Pause here. Up until this point, the cultural imaginary surrounding zombie films ranged from camp to scary, but the zombies that Boyle conjures in 28 Days Later unleashed an entirely new breed onto the screen that breathed fresh life into the undead genre. Unlike the slowly swaying monsters with out-stretched arms moaning in baritone for an antipasto of cerebellum, the zombies in 28 Days are fast, furious, and ferocious. In fact, in the moments over the course of the film in which they’re successful, we actually don’t even see them eating humans at all. Instead, the frenzy of their attack is one of simple, frenetic dismemberment, removing body parts in pure apoplexy, rather than feasting on corpses.
The zombies here move differently, they feast differently, and they even sound different, too. The result is a total departure from the treatment zombie films typically received up until the point this film came out, and it signaled a shift in the place zombie films hold today. Before 28 Days, they were seen as off-beat frivolity; now, due in no small part to this film, they’re a mainstay in horror lore.
Jim eventually locates a few un-infected companions with whom he scours the city and the countryside looking for sanctuary. By the second half of the film they locate a military encampment outside Manchester, where Boyle finally clarifies the zombie conceit alle‘gory’ (I’m sorry; I couldn’t help it). Unfortunately, it’s nothing new here: the monster out there is a reflection of the monster within us all. It’s nothing ground-breaking.
That said, although it loses steam toward the end, I think 28 Days Later is a magnificent film, with some outstanding performances by Murphy and the supporting cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, and Naomie Harris.