In the distant past when Britain had a film industry it seemed for a time that it consisted solely of horror movies such was the prevalence and success of the Hammer films. Now it appears that a mini-renaissance has taken place with such recent hits as Dog Soldiers and My Little Eye. But the best of the bunch is the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the post-apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later.
After the somewhat underwhelming The Beach, Boyle teamed up again with writer Alex Garland to create an unexpected cinematic offering, a low budget zombie movie. It begins with a group of animal rights activists breaking into a research facility who unwittingly unleash a psychological virus, Rage. Transmitted by blood it turns its victims into psychopathic killers within a matter of moments. 28 days later a young man wakes up in hospital and finds himself completely alone, taking to the streets he is faced with further emptiness in a haunting, almost Marie Celeste-like London. All to soon he encounters a number of the infected but also meets up with a couple of survivors and the film follows their struggles to survive and find some hopeful solution to the contagious virus.
Anyone who has seen the classic zombie trilogy from horror maestro George A. Romero will find themselves on familiar territory here. It is hard to make a movie of this type without being influenced by those genre defining classics and it is to the filmmakers credit that 28 Days Later has its own uniqueness of character and style. This is helped by the use of digital video. A format which has not only given the film a very distinct look but enabled the guerrilla filming of the acclaimed scenes of a deserted British capital (reminiscent of the opening of The Omega Man). The choice of camera also helps in creating some truly visceral action scenes, which have an exhilarating sense of urgency, assisted by some suitably gory sound effects. However these scenes are punctuated by quieter well written character moments in which the cast excel in creating fully-rounded believable individuals.
Believable characters are essential for a film of this type; if you don't care about the protagonists then it won't work. This is a major problem with many of the teen slasher movies and probably the reason you cheer for the bad guy. There are no such problems in 28 Days Later. Cillian Murphy is excellent as Jim, a character thrust into this bizarre situation, a character that strives to maintain a sense of hope throughout. Naomie Harris as Selena is also very good as a young woman that is practically the opposite of Jim. She seems to have shut down emotionally, "what's the point in making plans" she proclaims at one point. She is a survivor, but at the cost of her humanity. Christopher Eccleston plays a character that could have easily become a cliché, but makes him totally believable with his portrayal of Major Henry West, the head honcho of the military group they encounter in the second half of the film. But special mention must go to an unequalled performance by Brendon Gleeson as the taxi driver Frank who is introduced to the audience brilliantly. Turning a London cabbie into a likeably character is a feat in itself and Gleeson is superb, portraying the most human character in the most inhuman of situations. His relationship with his daughter is a great example of this and Frank as a father figure is a key theme to the more character driven elements of the plot.
28 Days Later is of course a horror movie first and foremost and delivers the goods on this level as well. As mentioned the action scenes are well handled, the relentless onslaught and rage of the infected is evident in the gritty and gory set pieces. Amongst this is the notion of the difference or lack of, it between the infected and the survivors. Both resort to violent, animalistic acts and as Major Henry West puts it he is just seeing the same thing "people killing people", that happened before the virus. As well as violence and bloodshed the film has many haunting scenes exemplified when Jim finds out what happened to his parents aided by the use of classic hymns on the soundtrack.
A real sense of loss is conveyed in 28 Days Later, not just for individuals but for a way of life. But there is no better example than in the opening of this film with Jim wandering the desolate London streets. Almost dialogue free, the use of music and the striking visuals create some of the most memorable scenes in recent British cinema. Watching this small group of survivors, this family if you will, grow and change against this impressive backdrop throughout the film is as captivating as the action, so much so that when they meet up with the military the narrative suffers slightly. It is still entertaining though, and is more a credit to the strengths of the first half rather than any inherent weakness in the second half of the script. It is from this point on that the film changes tone leading to an ending which is slightly upbeat, if on repeated viewings, a tad more ambiguous.
28 Days Later shows that given the right enthusiasm and talent this country can make exciting, intelligent commercial cinema. It successfully emerges from the shadow of Romero's definitive trilogy, resulting in an excellent British horror movie for the 21st century, following a fine tradition of apocalyptical fiction from the likes of authors such as John Wyndham. The digital video format gives it a distinct look, adding to the eeriness of the empty cityscapes and the cast of mainly unknowns bring a realism to their characters, helped by a great script. The soundtrack is also very effective in adding to the mood including a rare cinematic outing for a track by the excellent Godspeed You Black Emperor, a band whose style informs the musical score as a whole. A surprising and unexpected film from Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later is a worthy addition to the annals of British horror cinema.
British director, from TV, who started his movie career with two big homegrown hits: Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His Hollywood efforts suggested he's better when based in the U.K., as both 2005's kids comedy Millions and the hit zombie shocker 28 Days Later were big improvements on his two previous features, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach.
Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later, then scripted Boyle's ambitious sci-fi epic Sunshine. Boyle next enjoyed worldwide and Oscar success with Slumdog Millionaire, the biggest hit of his career, which he followed with true life survival drama 127 Hours and tricksy thriller Trance, in between staging the 2012 London Olympics to great acclaim. Business biopic Steve Jobs was a flop, however.