”28 Days Later” is not only one of the most iconic horror films of the 21st Century’s but also a pivotal one regarding British horror. 2002 turned out to be a landmark year for British horror films as it also saw the release of “Dog’s Soldier’s.” Both of these films led to the re-emergence of the UK horror film scene which it had been mostly dormant in the ’90s. Not that there were no horror movies from our fair isle in the 90s just most of them were rubbish, and it would be uncontroversial to call it one of the worst decades for British Horror, if not the worst.
Funny then, that the film the re-sparked the UK scene did not come from some with a track record in the genre but Danny Boyle who was at that point most known for “Trainspotting” and had not made a horror film before nor has he since. Boyle is now, of course, considered one of this country’s finest genre filmmakers and has long established his “national treasure” status but at this stage, he was looking for a career renaissance after two critical and commercial failure in “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach.” With even Boyle later openly disliking.
Both “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach” were glossier Hollywood productions and in the latter cases much bigger budgeted than Boyle had been used too. “28 Days Later” on the other hand saw Boyle come back to his roots not just due to it being a smaller British production but also it has a more rough and ready shooting style. You sense this was as much of a practical choice as an aesthetic one as the use of digital camcorders allowed Boyle’s crew to set up and move on quickly which came in useful for capturing many of the film’s most memorable shots of capturing desolate streets and empty motorways on the hoof.
The most iconic of which is where we see Jim (Cillian Murphy) standing on an empty Westminster bridge with Big Ben looming in the background. In fact, that whole section at the start where Jim wanders around a deserted London is so memorable that many forget that the film does not open with it but instead with a prologue where we see how the “rage” virus escaped in the first place.
The use of digital camcorders did not just help with shooting on quick turnaround, but it also suits the movie, in terms, of giving it a grittier, documentary-like look which makes the action that unfolds feel more visceral and realistic. There is something about this use of digital over film that suits the frenzied energy and kinetic pace that Boyle keeps going over its near 2 hours running time. It also seems to be appropriate for this British urban tale differentiating from glossier American zombie films. Not that "28 Day's Later" is really a zombie film as the hordes are not undead but infected with a virus. This fact did not, however, stop lots of subsequent zombie films take inspiration from 28 Days and introducing running zombies as a thing.
Away from the look of the film, there is a great deal else to admire about “28 Days Later”. For example, anyone who has seen it will remember John Murphy’s pulsating score which greatly adds to the tension of proceedings particularly the instrumental track "In the House – In a Heartbeat" which scores the climactic confrontation in the mansion house.
Director Boyle was also bold in his casting decision with the leads being played by, then, relative unknowns Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. Both of whom excel in their roles with Murphy playing everyman Jim who has just woken from a coma and Harris playing Selina who, initially at least, is a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners survivor. Murphy and Harris both brilliantly portray their characters journey with Jim becoming more of survivor while Selina comes to show other things are going on underneath all those hard edges. Balancing out the fresh faces Boyle also cast experienced character actors Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston, both of whom leave there mark on the film although in very different ways.
Gleeson plays Frank a father who, along with his daughter, teams up with Jim and Selina to travel to a potential safe haven in Manchester. Frank is possibly the warmest and funniest character in the film and the relationship with his daughter Hannah is also nicely played. All this plus the brief sunny patch in the movie makes it all the more gut-wrenching when he is killed after becoming infected. Eccleston’s role as Major Henry West is entirely different initially seeming like a possible saviour before quickly revealing himself to be unhinged. The point this is revealed is a scene where our protagonists are welcomed with a dinner by Major West and his soldiers only for it to become one of the most unnerving dinner scenes this side of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Not that Major West think he is doing anything unhinged, in fact, from his point of view his actions, which presumably most viewing would see as despicable, seem not only logical but vital for survival. Something which is a recurring theme both what would you do to survive in a situation like that? Moreover, is there meaning beyond mere survival in a world like that? No easy answers are given. Herein lies another key strength to the movie namely that while you can enjoy it as a pure piece of entertainment with explosive set-pieces, gory deaths, and kinetically charged action sequences, there is also plenty morally and intellectually absorbing elements bubbling under the surface for those inclined to engage with the feature.
While there is not much to criticise here, it would be fair to say the film never quite matches the intensity of its opening 20 minutes. On the other hand, it would be accurate to say that opening is up there with the very best in horror, so it is understandable the film is unable to sustain the same level of ferocity. If there is another criticism to be made it would be Garland script between its environmental allegory, political commentary, and ethical debate is thematically over-stuffed meaning not everything is explored as fully as it could be. In subsequent years this has become a hallmark of Garland’s work, but then again I would rather have that than puerile entertainments devoid of value.
Some of these weaknesses were also picked up by critics at the time but mainly “28 Days Later” was a major critical as well as commercial hit. The film also went to win several accolades and has only gone on to grow in stature ranking seventh in Bloody Disgusting top 20 Horror films of the Decade (the 2000’s). Also in that rarest of occurrences, it spawned a solid sequel in 2007’s “28 Weeks Later” which while no match for the original does a good job of building upon the world established by its predecessor. There has also long been talk of a “28 Months Later” to complete the trilogy but that project never really got off the ground and now seems unlikely to be made.