In 2002, the zombie world was turned upside down. For years and years, the undead had shambled around in search of brains, slowly wreaking havoc on unsuspecting humans who just happened to be nearby. It speaks to the power and ubiquity of George A. Romero’s original masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968), that not a single director tried to upend the type until three decades later. Dozens of zombie flicks put a timely spin on the flesh eaters — Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a takedown of ’70s consumerism, The Return of the Living Dead (1985) had plenty of ’80s irreverence, Dead Alive (1992) and Army of Darkness (1992) were straight-up ’90s spectacles — but, through it all, the zombies themselves remained unchanged.
Then Danny Boyle came along with 28 Days Later. Before then, the British director was known for his feverish druggy drama, Trainspotting, and a handful of commercial projects. Like many young directors, he took a crack at the horror genre because, well, it’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also a sly venue for flexing creative and stylistic muscles, and when Boyle decided on zombies, he gave us something we’d never seen before: fast zombies. Like, as in wicked-fast zombies, the sort who could easily sweep the Olympics in the 100-meter dash.
This seemingly tiny tweak was all Boyle needed to inject life back into the genre, beyond flavor-of-the-decade clothing and themes. 28 Days Later still has all the cliches we know and love — an apocalyptic setting, a small band of survivors, a hapless group of military “saviors,” a series of temporary hideouts — but fast zombies throw all the cliche rules out the window. Take the apocalyptic setting: In post-zombie Britain, the undead (or the rage-ful, whatever) don’t need to wander around and take victims by surprise or sheer force. Instead, they often appear in small groups, then chase their prey into close quarters, where no survivor in their right mind would go otherwise. When paired with general global unrest in the early 2000s, the sprinting undead just make sense. The world was faster, more chaotic and seemingly more dangerous than ever before. Our zombie surrogates should represent that.
But does it work as a piece of entertainment? We sink our teeth into the film’s upsides, downsides, characters and genre-shaping influence. Better grab your running shoes.
By Phil and Jessica
Jessica: I think it would be fair to say that 28 Days Later is my absolute favorite horror movie of all time. I know that’s putting a lot of pressure on the film (and possibly this review) but it’s the truth. I wasn’t really much of a horror film fan before I watched this movie. Maybe it was because I’d never watched many before, but this was the one where I realized that the horror genre and plot could actually go hand-in-hand in an effective way. Also, I was a huge action film fan already, so it would make sense that I’d identify closely with a horror film with lots of running and chopping and shooting in it. Now I appreciate some of those slower simmering ones, but really, there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of watching someone run in a panic away from a bunch of raged-out zombies. I love the characters in this film, the twists in the plot, and – it may be sacrilege to say this – but these are my favorite type of zombies, because they’re the ones I’d probably be least likely to survive. This movie is so much fun. What drew you to this film?
Phil: Oh boy, opening up a whole can of gruesome worms with the fast zombies thing. Before we get into that, I wanted to start right at the top by agreeing with you. This is one of my favorite horror films, easily in the top five, and I think it’s because there’s something just so…gritty about it. First, it’s shot in Britain, so everything has that slightly grimy aura of a place that rarely viddies the currant bun (apparently that’s cockney slang for sun). Then — and I’m going off memory here — director Danny Boyle (he of the new talk-of-the-moment, Steve Jobs) shot the entire thing on digital film. Like his fast zombies, some people might see that as a slap in the face of cinematic gods. But I think it works here. Everything is fast, brutal and chaotic, and I think the slight handheld feel of digital footage fits the atmosphere. After all, this is the start of a zombie apocalypse. Things wouldn’t be neat and clean.
Aside from the action, what grabbed a hold of you in the first, say, 30 minutes of the film? Because, like some of the best and worst, it takes its sweet time getting started.
Jessica: I liked the situation they set up at the beginning, of Cillian Murphy’s character Jim waking up in the deserted city where everyone is brown bread (cockney slang for dead). I read somewhere that that was one of the most expensive shots at the time, because they basically had to pay to get everyone out of that big square in London. It is just such an iconic shot and, correct me if I’m wrong, I feel like this film was the first to establish certain things that are now sort of generic “zombie genre” aspects, like the waking up after a coma (Walking Dead) and walking around in the deserted city (though that is also in Vanilla Sky and its Spanish counterpart Abre Los Ojos), and the beginning where the reason the zombie thing starts is because of infected chimps. I feel like that’s a thing? Anyway, that first part with the chimps I could have done without, but the rest with Jim’s character works pretty well. He acts as a great stand-in for the audience, being totally new to the universe as well (though we in the audience admittedly have a bit of a heads-up on the whole zombie development). Plus, I liked Selena and Mark (RIP!) when they were introduced. They’re badass but they’ve got this morbid sense of humor (Mark’s giraffe joke) that makes sense in the situation.
Who is your favorite character? And what scenes do you think we could have done without?
Phil: I was going to ask you about the opening scene with the chimps. To me, it always felt like a studio tack-on, as in some random executive said, “But I just don’t GET why everyone is infected with rage,” or “It’s CONFUSING to begin with an unconscious man.” That becomes apparent as the movie moves on, but in a much more subtle way than showing us the actual break-in. (Although, I must say, the very first shot of atrocities and beatings and all sorts of sick shit — the thing that infected the apes — is one hell of a statement to make at the start of a zombie flick. I like to think that’s Boyle’s way of saying, “Fine, but I’m gonna make this ridiculous intro legit.”)
Anyway, I’ve always been a fan of Selena. I see her as the prototype for Walking Dead’s Michonne, and not just because they both happen to be black. They’re both bona fide killing machines, the sort of people who have taken the end of the world and decided to fight back. Like you said, these zombies are the sort you might not be able to get away from, and I’m not so sure I’d escape either. But Selena and Michonne? Damn, if they were put in the same universe together, I’d want to join their survivor group.
I also have a soft spot for Frank, the lone father in the group. That alone makes him a vessel (fancy word, eh?) for audience emotions, and his character manages to feel like the last “real” person in the group — someone who wasn’t destined to live and, unfortunately, doesn’t. One of my favorite scenes is when he has the awful luck to look up just as a drop of infected blood drips from above. It hits his eye — instant infection — and he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s brown bread (or maybe brown un-bread?) He warns his daughter to stay back, then, with a few jerky twitches and grunts, he starts turning into a zombie. It’s another cliche everyone has, but this one does it with such slice-of-life immediacy that it felt new and fresh.
And I also just really like Brendan Gleeson. He plays Frank as a likeable and believable everyman, while Selena just seems superhuman (to a point) and Jim just felt like he was…there. Thoughts on Jim? He is our main character, after all.
Jessica: Jim definitely starts as the audience stand-in, but as he is drawn into the story, he becomes his own character, especially since the next step they take is to find his parents, which leads to Mark’s death and their discovery of Hannah and Frank. I actually really liked Jim’s character, though I know there are people who don’t. In some alternate endings, he was supposed to die in the end, but the test audiences thought it was too bleak. They wanted Jim to survive, dammit! And actually one of my favorite scenes is when Jim returns to the house after the soldiers failed to execute him, and he unleashes the soldier zombie and helps Selena and Hannah make their escape. It’s actually a really interesting scene because while the zombie is going around killing people, Jim himself is also attacking and killing them, not in a dissimilar way, and that is not lost. Jim is driven to the killing, and the point where he comes face to face with Selena is a big one, but of course her humanity wins out and she manages not to kill him like she would one of the zombies (Juno from The Descent could take notes here). Plus, that song is just badass and I definitely downloaded it and listen to it when I’m writing kickass battle scenes.
To touch back on the Frank point, he’s definitely awesome, even though poor guy’s not destined to survive. He’s not part of the “final family” (see Slither, Aliens and a bunch of other films for reference). And I agree that Selena was Michonne before there was Michonne. Now that I look closer, The Walking Dead definitely took a lot from 28 Days Later. Or maybe that’s just the nature of the modern zombie movie, having lots of similarities, I’m not sure.
What scenes stand out to you as iconic, or just simply, sweetly badass? What did this movie do first that all others seem to have copied?
Phil: That’s right…I forget that Jim is the one who unleashes a zombie, and he manages to save Selena when she and Frank’s daughter are ready to just give up. His character goes through plenty of changes and transformations, almost more so than anyone else, so I understand how his death in the end would seem waaaay too bleak. Good call, test audiences.
Jim is also the star of my favorite scene, which comes in the final hellish minutes that our final family spends at the military compound. Shortly after arriving there, it’s clear the daisy boots have given up hope of rebuilding anything, or even acting like a secure civilian sanctuary. (Funny how shit collapses so quickly in just four weeks. Think that’s the truth?)
No, they’ve given up much hope of anything, so when these random survivors including WOMEN wander to their guarded compound, it’s game on. The daisy boots introduce Jim to their pet zombie, there’s an awkwardly rapey dinner scene, and, suddenly, the zombies break through the landmines and flimsy barriers at the sanctuary (more shades of The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, just about every zombie flick ever). All hell breaks loose until Jim is fighting zombies plus armed military — with no weapons. After taking out one of the dumber grunts, he runs into another. They tussle for a bit and end up on the ground, Jim on top, the daisy boot on the bottom. Without thinking twice, Jim jabs his thumbs into the other dude’s eye sockets and just. Keeps. Pressing.
This is where the scene goes from gory to memorably uncomfortable. After pressing for a solid five or six seconds, we hear a pop. A loud, wet pop. The daisy boot flails a few more times and goes limp, while Jim just. Keeps. Pressing. Good god. The entire film he felt like our surrogate, like the guy who’s just there, until the insane zombie takeover at the compound. This guy might just be as ruthless as Selena…
Now, as for things this film did before everyone else, the one that sticks out is (ohnohedidn’t) fast zombies. I’ll pass it off to you here: Why are they your favorites, aside from your fate as fast food?
Jessica: Oh man, the zombie debate. We just saw this hashed over in the documentary Doc of the Dead recently, where some people are zombie purists, Romero fans or whatever. Basically, I have no such qualms. I’m in the camp of what’s scary. I can understand the respect for the father of the zombie genre (as we know it today), but I don’t think the buck needs to stop there. Those rage zombies are fucking terrifying and there’s no getting around it. There’s just something visceral about the way they growl and sniff and then up and charge at their prey. You have to sprint to outrun them, and even then that might not be enough. I’d say that’s fear at its most primal, going back to the times when mankind had to run from predators. This movie is just people moving down one step on the food chain and having to fight or adapt in order to survive. Yes, we’ve got the technology (guns, barbed wire, walls) but sometimes those fail and then you’re in the jungle, baby.
I don’t dislike slow zombies, though it took me longer to get on board. I have a lot of respect for someone who overcomes rage zombies. But slow ones? Meh. Though I have to give The Walking Dead credit here, the threat feels very real. I feel like their zombies are in between Romero originals and these hyper-fast ragers, so more realistic.
Where do your loyalties lie?
Phil: I think you hit on the key point. For me, it’s not about how a zombie acts — it’s how frightening it is. Again, to use The Walking Dead, those zombies always seem like a threat because the show presents them that way. Characters are constantly wandering into stupid, obviously dangerous situation — or forced into them — and you know a zombie will be there, waiting to take advantage. When 90 percent of the world is undead, how can they not be?
That said, fast zombies can be done like complete shit. I enjoyed World War Z for the most part, but by the time that film came out, the fast zombie thing had been beaten to a pulp. Remember the quasi-zombie/vampires in I Am Legend? Those were purloined straight from 28 Days Later. The film around them is a good one, but I never liked how they moved with no regard for anything except being fast fast fast.
That’s why I think 28 Days Later is still the best of the fast zombie flicks. Sure it’s the original, but like you said, these zombies are predators, plain and simple. In terms of physical activity, they don’t do anything normal humans can’t, just as slow zombies don’t do anything humans can’t either. They have one instinct — to kill — and they’ll do whatever it takes to satiate that animalistic urge. Although, to be fair, I understand why purists say Boyle’s creations aren’t zombies because they’re technically infected with rage. Whatever. It doesn’t matter to me, just like the opening chimp scene doesn’t really matter. These are still zombies man, and zombies can be terrifying.
Jessica: Word. I think of zombies not as a sort of mythical creature with its own rules, but basically as a human that doesn’t have its mind anymore and is turned into a cannibalistic killing machine, whether fast or slow. And darned if I won’t watch most anything with them in it. Even if it is called Zombeavers.
Phil: Oh my lord I can’t wait for that one, or the cheap-o DVD I bought with three on one disc: The Dead Hate the Living, Prison of the Dead and, of course, The Dead Want Women.