Tuesday, August 11, 2009

28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

Fans of Alex Garland's cult novel The Beach must have scratched their heads when Danny Boyle's adaptation essentially cut out the horrific last act when the beach community goes mad. Garland must have been confused as well, for he supplied the director with a script containing nothing but rage-filled, zombiesque creatures.

Now before I lose some people, let me address the zombie aspect of the film. I'm no horror expert, but the original George A. Romero Dead trilogy (why oh why couldn't he leave well enough alone?) and Max Brooks' recent, spellbinding novels The Zombie Survival Guide and the schlock masterpiece World War Z remain some of my favorite entries of either medium. I know the rules well: the zombie disease -- be it a virus, radiation, or some mystic curse -- spreads through blood and saliva. Those infected stand no hope of recovery. To kill a zombie, you must destroy the brain; decapitation will stop the body, but the head can still bite. Once a human has turned, he or she will never emit an emotional response, will never somehow remember a relative who begs for life by attempting to reach the loved one they once knew. Most importantly, zombies don't run.

28 Days Later follows several of these guidelines loosely, but it loses people in the running. I, for one, had no problem with it; what Garland and Boyle have created is a revisionist zombie flick, a Romero film for the post-9/11 era. Obviously, Romero eventually made his own "Romero films for the post-9/11 era," but Boyle's hyper-kinetic, gripping thriller vastly outstrips either of Romero's entries into his trademark franchise this decade.

Furthermore, not even Romero sticks to the "proper" formula: the zombies in Night of the Living Dead can run, and we all remember the humanized zombie Bub from Day of the Dead (as well as "Big Daddy" in Land). John A. Russo, co-writer of Night, eventually teamed up with Dark Star and Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon to create a more lightweight zombie franchise which broke damn near all the rules. Dismissing 28 Days Later, a film that doesn't even refer to its bloodthirsty mobs as "zombies," for not following a set of arbitrary rules established by fans of the genre when some of its most notable touchstones veer wildly as well strikes me as little more than fanboyish rage.

Shot mainly with grainy digital cameras, 28 Days Later has a docudrama feel that total first-person experiences such as Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead fail to communicate. Even with gorgeous, haunting establishing shots of a vacant London -- you have to admire and wonder how a film with a paltry £5,000,000 budget could co-ordinate cordoning off large blocks of the city for extreme long shots of total desolation, even if only for a few days of shooting -- breaking the personal feel of the action, Boyle invites us into this world, and a truly nightmarish one it is.

Following a prologue involving an outbreak of scientifically infected monkeys, the film shifts forward, well, guess how long, to focus on a young man waking up from a coma following a car accident. Jim (Cillian Murphy, in his breakout role) stumbles out of his hospital bed to find an abandoned building. The streets of London are likewise barren, until he walks into a church and finds a stack of dead bodies. Some of them stir at the noise he makes, and now the poor lad (still in a hospital gown, no less), must run from insane, fleet-footed killers who dart about as fast as humanly possible.

A group of survivors saves him, and they offer up some much-needed explainin': following the chimp outbreak, a mysterious virus known only as "Rage" swept through Britain, as infection spreads through even a drop of blood in an open wound, mouth or eyes, and any hapless victim covered in the red stuff turns in under 20 seconds. Once turned, they attack anything that moves with unrelenting ferocity. Jim joins the two survivors who rescue him -- what choice does he have? -- and soon finds himself in the sort of despair you'd expect from someone who woke up to the apocalypse. Eventually they run low on supplies and set out through London, searching for anything or anyone who might help them survive.

The real horror of 28 Days Later comes not from the infected but their after-effects. It is genuinely unsettling to see a handful of people move through a desolate metropolis. I suppose the city really should have teemed with infected, but I would hazard a guess that Boyle was doing good just to shut down parts of London for shooting, much less paying hundreds of extras (all of whom would need decent make-up) for every exterior shot. The infected are not interested in eating flesh, only attacking, and it's chilling to watch one of the few human survivors sprayed in the face with blood either vomited by the infected or (more disturbingly) spurted by wounds that the human inflicts to stop the rampaging beast.

Selena (Naomie Harris), a steely, kickass black woman ripped straight from The Omega Man, knows all too well what it means when an infected spills some blood on a person, and when she spots a gash on her comrade's arm created by one of the Ragers, she cuts him apart with a machete without a moment's hesitation. He's the first of the characters to fall prey to this fast-acting disease, but he sure isn't the last.

Of course, horror doesn't mean much if the characters afflicted by monsters/killers/insanity do not connect with the audience. Even if we're never meant to root for a character or get much of an insight into them (think Repulsion), we have to care on some level about the people on screen. Garland's script succeeds because he gives us people who have their own issues and personalities outside of dealing with the Rage threat. Selena and Jim happen upon Frank (Brendan Gleeson, stealing the show as ever), a kindly but strong single parent desperately trying to give his young daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) a shred of normalcy even as they are barricaded in their flat.

Of course, the raison d'ĂȘtre for most great zombie films is sociopolitical allegory, and 28 Days Later treads this path as well. After overhearing a radio transmission promising "the answer to infection," the foursome makes their way to a compound controlled by a small band of soldiers led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). West's "answer" is to hole up until the infected die of starvation, then to rebuild civilization; one day, he takes Jim aside and tells the now-steeled survivor that he sent out the transmission to give his despondent squad hope and he "promised them women."

The readiness of the soldiers to rape Selena and the teenage Hannah is forced -- I figured they'd want at least some semblance of a human connection outside of sex -- but the martial law of West illustrates a point hammered home with amusing repetition in The Zombie Survival Guide: in most cases, surviving humans pose more of a threat to each other than the zombies. Eccleston puts in a fine performance as, in many ways, a foil for Frank: he's trying to keep his soldiers -- a surrogate family -- going and sees procreation as much an avenue to bring them back from the brink as it is "necessary" to keep humanity going. That only Great Britain suffers from this outbreak, at least according to the most sympathetic soldier, only reveals how mad West has become in his attempts to literally hold down the fort.

The insanity of West's compound sets up an inevitable confrontation between the soldiers and the civilians, but 28 Days Later hits a bit of a snag in the end. Basically, a royally pissed off Jim tears through the complex to save Selena and Hannah and generally acts in a manner just as terrifying as the infected who swarm about the place. There's an interesting theme there that Garland and Boyle, suddenly salivating over the violence like men possessed, do not explore. It especially looks bad in a coda that was re-written after an original, bleaker, and infinitely superior (because it actually works) ending drew negative response at test screenings, that most useless of industry tools. This new ending offers hope, but it directly contradicts the rest of the film and its lack of any organized government, military, religion or any other social institution. Again, that might have been a suitably dark and contemplative direction, showing that both the soldiers and civilians tore each other apart when help might have been on the way, but the poor filmmakers had to make a forced happy ending that rewards these characters for their bloodlust.

Nevertheless, even the final act contains enough full-tilt action to keep your pulse-pounding no matter how reactionary it is. Boyle's grainy, jumpy footage ratchets up the tension even as I found precious little that scared me (I have a strange tendency not to be scared by horror films I like, as I'm "too busy" admiring them). I also appreciate the dark humor of a group of animal rights activists unwittingly causing the outbreak in their attempts to free monkeys, rather than the carelessness of clinical scientists. Garland has a history with mocking the counterculture (i.e. The Beach), but I think that Boyle at least subconsciously wanted to demonstrate that well-meaning people can bring about massive destruction; after all, the scientists who always set something loose in these sorts of films are usually working toward something good and noble.

28 Days Later may divide zombie fans, but I for one delighted in all the nods to Romero's films: a Bub-like infected man under study, an attack in a decrepit gas station, the ruthless military vs. civilians. Boyle wears his influences on his sleeve, and he and Garland crafted a thoroughly enjoyable, somewhat thoughtful meditation on how man can lose himself in hysteria and anger, released in the wake of both September 11 and the SARS panic. It loses steam at the end, but 28 Days Later is more than a respectable entry into the horror genre, and its gritty look set off a wave of inferior imitators just as Romero's zombie satires did decades ago.

1 comment:

  1. A truly beautifully made thriller. You feel the protagonist's unease and sense of loss and fear from the minute he wakes up at the hospital. This movie relies on suspense more than just gore and tries to show the human condition when one is pushed to the limits of survival.