After a string of films of geometrically declining quality, Danny Boyle strips down his urge to bloat with the decidedly low-fi, digital video, creatures-of-the-id zombie flick 28 Days Later. Apocalyptic in a way that reminds of Geoff Murphy's The Quiet Earth and legendary British novelist John Wyndham's (The Day of the Triffids) end-of-days ethic, the picture resolves ultimately as something of a forced morality play and a cautionary fable about man's inhumanity to man. Its opening image of a chimp strapped to a table and forced to watch archival footage of riots and lynchings is paralleled with our first glimpse of a human hero, strapped naked to an operating table, marking the picture as affecting, if not terribly high on subtlety. Still, the rise of a new, animal culture to supplant the old guard -- a staple of the genre since Wyndham, George Romero, and Richard Matheson -- manages to hold interest, particularly in times where there arises again a paranoid separation between western leadership and its proletariat.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to find England deserted save Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), survivors all of a viral plague that causes folks to devolve into a state of perpetual homicidal rage. Discovering Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) as they trek across the wasteland, they find themselves in exile with a pocket of military survivors lead by pragmatic Major West (Christopher Eccleston), holed away in an old mansion in the English countryside. Like a bad nature reel, the culprit of the piece doesn't reveal itself to be the predators, but mankind in all its supercilious aggression.
Murphy makes for a well-fleshed protagonist; his evolution from innocence to experience (including the loss of parents, the acceptance of responsibility, and the reunification of the family unit) provides the structure for a film that feels at times like a series of coming-of-age vignettes, including a sexual awakening for young Harris by way of the time-honored tunnel metaphor. The always-reliable Gleeson represents the death of traditional family structure, and Eccleston's military chief the same for social structure, while Murphy and Harris represent the hope for reason post-infection. In this way, with its embrace of a fable of reconstruction, 28 Days Later is a more optimistic look at rage and its fallout than Ang Lee's less honest Hulk.
The early scenes, with Jim wandering the debris-littered streets in scavenged hospital scrubs, lend freshness at last to overused shots of Parliament on the Thames -- the sort of poignant reinvention that the picture finds again in the joyous looting of an abandoned supermarket, but that it can't maintain. After springing a particularly nasty Bosch-ian tableau in a looted church, 28 Days Later demonstrates an anarchic energy that marks its first half as a fever dream that its second half feels compelled to justify. The problem with the film is that urge to proselytize -- to offer the kind of Lord of the Flies coda favored by screenwriter Alex Garland (author of the similarly-themed novel The Beach) that proves condescending to a savvy horror-movie audience prepared to draw its own conclusions -- particularly when the conclusions are as timeworn as the ones in 28 Days Later.
Still, the picture makes interesting choices, such as its decision at the end to switch from digital to film stock, marking the grit of the film as a canny artistic choice similar to, if not on a par with, Hitchcock's decision to film Psycho in black-and-white. The future of digital cinema may lie in the intimacy it affords "B" subject material, lending a documentary feeling to myth and allegory (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, 24 Hour Party People, The Blair Witch Project) that grounds archetype in the muck of mendacity. More to the point, the use of handheld digital can be unsettling and frightening in its rudeness; and when 28 Days Later decides to frighten, which it does often, it manages to do so with a kind of ugly vigor. A model of thematic economy, the picture ultimately suffers, like so many new horror films, from too much self-awareness -- turning its smarts into something that sometimes feels suspiciously like superiority. Yet the seriousness of its approach to horror, the respectful presentation of its dark fairy tale through genre conventions, identifies 28 Days Later as a picture worthy of a look, and the compliment of discussion.
Copyright © 2003 Walter Chaw
Walter Chaw trained in British Romanticism and Critical Theory, and is now the chief film critic for FilmFreakCentral.net. Syndicated weekly in 32 small print journals, he is a nationally accredited member of the Online Film Critics Society. His previous reviews in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact Walter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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