Fifteen Years Ago, “28 Days Later” Altered Horror

It wasn’t until 2003 where I was truly introduced to Danny Boyle (I’d seen Shallow Grave in 1994, and admittedly greeted it with a very negative reaction. Hell I was eleven). I fondly recall going to the movies that spring and experience a teaser trailer to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s “28 Days Later.” The trailer, like the film, was frantic and horrifying and it piqued my interest to where it was all I thought about for months. In the summer of 2003, I managed to see “28 Days Later” finally. It happened to be an even more interesting experience than I ever imagined because I’d seen it a week before I had to have mandatory open heart surgery. To say that I was in a rollercoaster of emotions while watching “28 Days Later” is an understatement of the highest degree.

It’s only apt and kind of ironic that 28 Days Later is met with its primary hero who awakens in a hospital after nearly dying in a coma, who manages to press on. Danny Boyle’s methodology of filmmaking is often surreal and deeply spiritual. Even a film about the end of the world with ravenous monsters feels like a journey of the soul, and “28 Days Later” transformed in to one of my favorite horror films of all time. It’s one of the most influential horror films of all time that managed to completely convert me in to a fan boy for Danny Boyle, Cillian Murphy, and the entire cast of the film.

Director Danny Boyle doesn’t just explore the vicious after math of the apocalypse, but the mental aftermath as well. In one scene he visits character Jim in his mind in a horrible dream where Jim envisions being left behind by his comrades. He’s left to fend for himself in a serene albeit dangerous landscape, and is awoken by the lovable Frank. We also gain an insight in to Jim’s past as he eerily thinks back to a time where he was happiest with his parents. There’s also the subtle examination of the youngest survivor Hannah who, by the finale, is so shell shocked and traumatized she barely responds to the terrible danger she’s in.

As demonstrated by his creative contemporaries Joss Whedon and Robert Kirkman, director Danny Boyle introduces us to a dark and unforgiving new world where no one is safe from this new disease. Codenamed ‘Rage,’ this speedy and disgusting infection is spread by well meaning animal activists. Assuming they’re helping trapped primates being experimented on, they instead unleash a disease that is unbiased, violent, and spells the end of England as we know it.

We’re later introduced to Selena and Mark, two survivors in the aftermath that are doing whatever they can to survive. They delight in killing two of the infected monsters, and saving Jim. They feed him and give him a nutshell explanation of what has happened. The world is over. The remaining living are either fighting to survive, or are red eyed ravaging beasts who do nothing but destroy everything in their paths. The smooth talking, clever, and quick witted Mark is later wounded in battle, and is murdered by the unflinching survivor Selena who hacks him to pieces despite his pleas for mercy.

Like actual anger, the rage virus takes only half a minute to rise to boiling temperatures, and it only allows survivors half a minute to react. Where in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” or “Dawn of the Dead,” survivors are given days to make their peace and decide on how to manage their infected loved ones the rage virus offers no such luxury. Your wife, your son, your daughter, your father: You’re given only thirty seconds to decide how to deal with them. You can either run for your life in such a small window, or you can stand there and murder them before they lunge at you.

During that time the infected become walking germs, dripping from every orifice, and displaying the embodiment of blind, violent rage. Their eyes are blood red and drip, and they spew bile from their body on to anything in sight. Those unlucky enough to survive an attack become a new host. “28 Days Later” is based heavily on misdirection and takes advantage of those moments to really enlist a ride for the audience that they can take home with them. The opening animal rights activists should be people we can root for, but their lack of information ultimately spells doom for them. We should be happy to see the military and their huge base filled with land mines, but their plans for the survivors is ultimately horrible and perverse.

There’s also the implication that the rage virus is in some ways a virus the humans submit to and somewhat revel in, when Jim faces down a young infected boy who screeches “I Hate You!” There’s also the finale in which Jim is able to become a merciless warrior when he submits to his own form of personal rage. “28 Days Later” had big budget aspirations with director Boyle hoping to cast Leonardo DiCaprio and then Ewan McGregor for the roles of Jim. But it’s the casting of somewhat acclaimed but barely known characters actors that work to the film’s advantage, giving it that realism that George Romero strived for with his Dead film series.

Cillian Murphy with his lanky build and striking eyes is a character that barely makes it out alive through most of the film, and survives on good deeds from everyone around him. Meanwhile Naomie Harris with her frizzy doo and handy machete is the perfect heroine for the apocalypse. And who knows? She’s perhaps a precursor to Robert Kirkman’s Michonne from The Walking Dead. You also have to adore Brendan Gleeson as Frank, the lovable large patriarch of the group who mercifully saves Jim and Selena’s lives based on sheer good will. He then sadly suffers a gut wrenching fate that I still have difficulty watching.

Even on my one hundredth viewing of the film.

Boyle’s horror story is peppered with brilliant character actors, all of whom have something great to lose, and just can’t find it within themselves to lie down and die. I am awestruck by the film’s inherent spiritual base every time I watch it, and adore Danny Boyle’s choice for the score. It’s often based around music involving choirs and organs that lend this situation as something of a re-awakening for the character of Jim, who rises from a coma and walks out of an empty hospital to learn the world around him has ended in a little under a month.

Even the back story behind “28 Days Later” is compelling with the unusual alternate paths Boyle and Garland almost took in the story. While I do love the ending that serves as a basis of proving Jim’s point that humanity isn’t all rotten, I wish Boyle and Garland had stuck to their guns and opted for the grim and soul crushing alternate ending. In it, Jim is taken to the hospital after being shot by Eccleston’s character and dies on the stretcher despite Selena’s best efforts to save him. Draped in darkness and wielding their guns, the girls leave Jim’s corpse in the hospital strewn on a stretcher. The very place he awoke in. And they both walk off in to the darkness of the hospital’s corridors, ready to fight another day without their male compatriot.

I don’t consider it a zombie film like many others, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t change the zombie sub-genre completely. Early promos for 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” copied the “28 Days Later” template, and Boyle set the stage for the revival of the running zombie. These days, for better or for worse, filmmakers opt for either the running zombie or the shambling zombie.

“28 Weeks Later” is a fine follow-up with an equally great cast, but director Danny Boyle’s original apocalyptic horror film is a rich character study, a bold examination of the good and evil humans are capable of, and the daring twists and turns Alex Garland takes with his almost painful punishment of characters we grow to love. It’s a horror film that fifteen years later is proudly placed on my Top Ten Horror Films of All Time.

It deserves to be lauded as a milestone in contemporary horror.