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28 Days Later

Entry updated 4 July 2019. Tagged: Film.

1. Film (2002). DNA Films/British Film Council. Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Cast includes Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleason, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Stuart McQuarrie and Cillian Murphy. 113 minutes. Colour.

Prologue. Animal rights activists break into the Cambridge Primate Research Centre where they let loose a number of chimpanzees infected with a rage-inducing virus. Like Ebola, this transmits through personal contact (the whole of 28 Days Later teems with blood), and transforms infected humans into Zombie-like creatures whose social inhibitions have dissolved in floods of terminal rage. As with Ebola, the hit rate of this virus is extremely high; unlike Ebola, however, the virus has immediate effect: within seconds its victims lose their minds and turn murderous; throughout the film, Garland and Boyle mine every opportunity to represent early twenty-first century Homo sapiens as a species whose profound inclination to violence (see Apes as Human) is instantly accessible, just beneath the mask of the civil.

Main action. A title informs us that it is now 28 days later. Jim (surnames are rarely given) (Murphy) awakens in a hospital bed. He is entirely alone. He detaches himself from his drips and wanders through the deserted corridors and atriums, shouting "Hello" repeatedly. The sequence is a direct homage to the beginning of The Day of the Triffids (1963), a first hint that the Zombie Apocalypse story we are led to expect may incorporate some elements of the Cosy Catastrophe; various nods to George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) do not seriously undermine a sense that some of 28 Days Later's characters may survive the Disaster that has ended civilization, and that they will almost certainly gain shelter somewhere in the cleansing wilds of northern England. This not unexpected geographical dynamic is adumbrated without delay as Jim escapes the hospital to find himself doing a Last Man walk through the surreally desolate streets of an apparently uninhabited London, a Dystopian City beyond civility that seems to have been designed to be deserted. But he is soon attacked by zombies, only surviving when rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Harris) and Mark (Huntley). Mark is soon infected, and Selena knifes him to death instantly: she is a survivor. She and Jim then see lights in a condo, where they take refuge with Frank (Gleason) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Burns).

Frank persuasively argues that the four must leave London for the north in his taxi, as they cannot fight off zombies forever, and he has heard a pre-recorded radio message from an army unit asking survivors to convene at a pre-arranged point north-east of Birmingham. The edgy relationship between Jim and Selena begins to warm, though it is not yet cosy. A raindrops-keep-falling-on-my-head sequence in a deserted supermarket, which is cosy, provides them with food and drink. They reach a roadblock near Birmingham, where Frank is infected by blood dripping from a raven, and is immediately shot from hiding by soldiers in quarantine gear. The survivors are taken to the army camp, located in a moderately Gothic mansion (see Gothic SF) with chessboard floors, where Selena and Hannah learn from the commander, the obsessional Major Henry West (Eccleston), that they will first be gang-raped by his needy men, and then kept alive for breeding purposes (see Women in SF). But Jim has seen the contrail of a jet, a sign that perhaps Britain itself is under quarantine, and after escaping execution, and unchaining an infected soldier who begins to create havoc, he rescues his two companions. Hannah runs the taxi through a locked gate, knocking Jim unconscious.

Epilogue. A title informs us that another 28 days have passed. Jim awakens in a double bed, in a cottage in rural world that seems idyllic (probably the Lake District). It is clear he and Selena are now sexual partners. Outdoors Hannah has been sewing a message on a vast white sheet. They hear a plane. All three spread the sheet out on the grass. The word Hannah has been sewing is HELLO, a reprise of Jim's shout after he awakens in the hospital. They're not sure they've been noticed, but on the soundtrack as the film ends the pilot can be heard speaking in Finnish to his base: "Lähetätkö helikopterin?" ["Will you send a helicopter?"]

28 Days Later very successfully transcends the difficulties inherent in its use of Zombie Apocalypse Clichés to articulate its inherently savage assault on the State of Britain and the plight of Homo sapiens beset by twenty-first-century rage. This is due less to the quality of the script than it is to the film's visual qualities. It was shot in digital video (or DV), a process that allows the filmmakers to create a sense of combined saturation and shaky-cam abruptness; shots are usually short, complexly composed though cut too fast to "appreciate", a visual rhetoric coincidentally very similar to the effects Paul Greengrass achieved in the second and third Bourne Films (2002 and 2007). The sense that all these films are transgressive almost certainly depends to a considerable degree on the contrast between the in-your-face rhetoric of hand-held (or seemingly hand-held) verité, and the retro doggedness of genre. Particularly in the case of 28 Days Later, that contrast between genre and execution is in a sense what the film is all about, for what it says is conventional enough, but what its visuals expose is not. In the end, it is not the zombies who are the eaters of the world.

Alex Garland's screenplay for this film was published as 28 Days Later: Screenplay (2002). [JC]

2. 28 Weeks Later Film (2007). Fox Atomic/DNA Films/UK Film Council. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Written by Fresnadillo and Rowan Joffe. Cast includes Rose Byrne, Robert Carlyle and Jeremy Renner. 100 minutes. Colour.

With a different director, different writers, and a different cast, none up to their predecessors, 28 Weeks Later may properly be deemed an exploitation flick, though within those terms expertly done, and requires no sustained attention. The film swallows whole every Zombie Apocalypse Cliché imaginable, without a thought of its own. It was briefly popular. [JC]


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