Dir. Danny Boyle, UK, 2002, 113 mins
Review by Jonathon Hopper
Released in the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, Danny Boyle’s nightmarish vision of society’s breakdown following an infectious outbreak is as far removed from the world of bunting, street parties and red, white and blue fairy cakes as it’s possible to be.
Courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a four week coma following a road accident to discover deserted wards and the streets ofLondonstrewn with discarded souvenirs and abandoned vehicles. Taken in by urbanites Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), he discovers that a virulent outbreak contracted from a diseased laboratory chimpanzee has killed millions and turned many more into flesh-eating ghouls.
The outlook is bleak until Jim and Selena (Mark’s been bludgeoned to death by this point after becoming infected) hook up with Frank (Gleeson) and daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) who play them a radio broadcast imploring survivors to travel to the M602 near Manchester where salvation awaits. Upon arrival at their destination however, they discover that the humans are worse than the infected.
It’s a bold and chilling vision that ups the anarchy, highlighting both the infectious disease outbreak recently seen in Contagion and the zombie apocalypse model so eloquently explored by George A Romero in his original Trilogy of the Dead. Danny Boyle was at pains to state upon the film’s release that the creatures grunting and lusting after the flesh of the living are not zombies (for those interested, zombies are re-animated corpses whilst what we are dealing with here are humans who have been infected with a virus that subverts their humanity and makes them lust after flesh), yet to all intent and purposes this is a zombie picture without the zombies.
It’s a genre that’s evolved numerous times, the ‘brain dead assassins’ reflecting the concerns of the time as they sweep all before them like a force of nature. Whilst the second of Romero’s trilogy (the classic Dawn of the Dead in which a horde of zombies shuffle about a 1978 mall window shopping) with its anti-consumerist subtext reflects a world of rocketing oil prices, 28 Days Later – released in the wake of concerns over MRSA and Ebola – features a pandemic that spreads from animal to human.
An effective if conventional sequel followed (2007’s 28 Weeks Later, featuring a different director and cast), and although the infected sprint about like they’re in training for an Olympics of the damned, the choices for the (un)lucky survivors remain the same as in Romero’s heyday; either accept that “staying alive is as good as it gets”, or hope for a brighter tomorrow despite the evidence mounting to the contrary. For all its visceral blood-letting and sense of isolation, 28 Days Later is a film about optimism and the endurance of the human spirit. In the year of the Diamond Jubilee it’s a message that’s as relevant as ever.