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REVIEW: A group of noble but mis-informed animal rights activists break into a secret research laboratory and, despite the pleas of a panicked scientist, release a chimpanzee infected with a virus called “Rage”. It immediately bites one of its saviors and the girl turns quickly, attacking the others, spraying contaminated blood in all directions. In seconds, the room is in chaos and the disease is free. 28 days later, everything is in ruins.
In a hospital room in London, a man awakens. He is nude, his head half shaved from an operation. He stumbles and calls for help but no one comes. Finding scrubs, be dresses and shambles into the hallways and discovers the building is utterly abandoned, the rooms ramshackle with toppled furniture and strewn papers. Into the streets, he finds a similar situation. London is empty. Cars and buses on their sides, the city deserted. A newspaper headline reads Britain is evacuated, leaving the world in chaos.
At a church, he discovered the gruesome remains of hundreds seeking protection from their god, but instead met their death at the hands of Rage infected who are still in the shadows, now alerted to the man’s presence. They give chase, and out in the streets, he is rescued by a pair of survivors who toss Molotov cocktails at the creatures. The three join up and decide to make a go of it, hoping to reach a safe zone for evacuation. What they encounter along the way is a battle for hope in a land ravaged by death and despair.
28 Days Later is “zombie” movie that set that trend on its ear. The monsters are not the slow, lumbering, dim-witted undead we’ve come to expect, instead fast moving almost intelligent savages that will stop at nothing to feast. Tense from start to finish, loaded with horrors and some very surprising emotional moments, it delivers on all fronts.
The Moment: The man, Jim, is now traveling with Selena and Hannah, an experience survivalist and a young girl, respectively. They’ve encountered a group of well-fortified militants holed up in a countryside manor, all men and all highly trained. They offer refuge and explain that the only way to survive is to wait for the infected to die of starvation and then repopulate once the epidemic has passed. This means they need females, and Jim learns that the group’s leader is going to take the woman and the girl and use them as sexual slaves. Overcome by force, Jim is taken off the property to be executed while the woman are dressed in gowns, waiting to be served up in a gang-rape to the commander and his men. Unknown to the soldiers, Selena has given Hannah some drugs in the hopes it will lesson the agony of what’s to come. But Jim has escaped and is coming back to finish this once and for all.
Why it matters: Nothing about Jim’s journey has been easy to watch. He’s seen and suffered greatly as he tries to get off the island. But all of it has been about eluding or fighting off the infected. They have been the source of fear since the beginning and have truly been scary in every scene they are in. Jim has learned to defend himself, and is beginning to see patterns in how to stave off the attackers. But with the human survivors entrenched in the manor, he discovers a far more vicious enemy. These men have a plan, and it is more cruel than the packs of flesh eating monsters hunting outside the walls. The real monsters are inside.
More: This was the first time zombies, though never referred to as such, moved fast. It breaks dramatically from the zombie archetype and can trace its roots to George Romero’s 1973 classic The Crazies about a town infected by the government with a toxin that turns them into rage-filled maniacs. It was really refreshing to see a new spin on the tired trend and reignited interest in the genre. While filled with gore and lots of style, the film still manages to tell a compelling and emotional story about humanity. In this scene, we see a desperate battle where we suddenly cheer for the monsters, and then cower in fear as chaos reigns inside the failed defenses of the manor.
As the film begins, we are treated to a spectacular sequence that is a marvel of storytelling and movie making. As any reader of our site or listener of our podcasts knows, we are not fans of narration in movies. it is unnecessary and a weak device that shows a lack of creativity and trust in the audience. After the Rage virus is released, the screen goes black and the film’s title appears serving as both name of the film and a clue for viewers of how time has passed. From there, we watch Jim awaken and explore the desolate city, learning right along with him what has happened. The streets of London are utterly devoid of human life and harkens to the opening of Tom Cruise’s Vanilla Sky and the later Will Smith’s I Am Legend, all featuring famously busy locations now hopelessly abandoned. It’s a breathtaking sequence and completely informs and educates the audience without a single word spoken. A crescendo of ominous electric guitar and strings accompany Jim and creates palpable tension as we brace for something, anything . . . we know they are out there.
Much has been written about the “happy” ending in which the three are apparently about to be rescued. This is the theatrical release but the DVD offers two alternatives, of which the writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle claim is the “true” ending. In this version, after the three escape the manor and the infected, retreat to a hospital to try and revive the wounded Jim. Their efforts fail though and the women are left alone, the scene ending with them armed, still in their red gowns, exiting the hospital, off to make a stand.
I’ve always wondered about the massive head wound Jim is sporting from the beginning of the film, he wakes from a coma or a drug-induced sleep and is obviously post operative. He explains to his rescuers that as a bike messenger, he was struck by a car, woke up in the hospital and the world had changed. It’s tempting to think perhaps the entire story is in Jim crushed mind, and that, following the alternate ending, he dies on the operation table, delusional. Either way, the fact that our hero has been damaged, his brain tampered with, mirrors in some manner the “zombies” as they too have had their brains altered.
I’m really not a big fan of zombie movies, as most of them are tiresome and predictable and spend far too much time in unnecessary gore. 28 Days Later adds a fresh bite to the genre and it works really well. Director Danny Boyle knows that while “zombies” can be an interesting foe, it is human nature that creates the bigger fright. As we come to fear the creatures, it is the people that scare the most and the struggle for survival among humans is the more epic battle.