28 Days Later
In films some themes seem to never die, ironically, one such theme is that of the undead, creatures that hunt the living in a nightmare world. A favorite twist on the zombie theme is rather simple, a catastrophic plague affects the large majority of mankind, only an unlucky few, trapped for various reasons away from the source of the dysfunction are unaffected and must fight for survival. One of the best incarnations of this tale is the Last Man on Earth, the Vincent Price horror classic based on the short story by Richard Matheson. It was remade years later as the Omega Man and also the ‘B’ cult flick Day of the Triffids. 28 Days Later continues this tradition with many homage to these classics blended with a few modern twists. Almost straight out of Triffids the story opens with Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakening in a deserted hospital in London. As he goes out to explore he finds the once busy city bereft of any signs of life. Newspapers tossed in the wind reveal that there was a virus that turned most people into creatures that know only violence. When a human is infected you have twenty seconds to kill them before they turn into a raging zombie. Genetic reality aside this plot device works to keep the audience in a perpetual countdown, ticking away the seconds and increasing the anticipation of the horror. With most of the world subject to the rage virus our hapless hero has to find some other survivors if for no other reason than to create a means for dialogue. After all, there is only so much you can talk about to a mindless zombie. Jim runs into Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley who managed to avoid infection and provide the requisite expository detailing how the virus spread across Europe and to the States before anyone was aware of the dire consequences. This sets up the classic us versus them environment, one where reasonable people are thrust into the most unreasonable circumstances. The undercurrent here is the virus is not natural, it was created (a la The Stand) by those heinous people working on biological weapons yet the rag tag group of survivors have to decide whether to trust a broadcast from the U.S. Army. The one drawback to this film is how it relies on too many plot devices, the twenty second time limit, the mistrust and how normally sedate people like Selena have to become tough in response to the emergency. There are too many moments that force the audience to remember other films keeping you from concentrating on the film at hand.
There are many films that do better with a cast that is for the most part unknown by the audience. This helps in many cases with the audience’s ability to identify with the characters. Cillian Murphy does an excellent job as the central character Jim. He has an everyday man quality about him that reinforces audience identification; permit us to be transposed into this nightmare world. By a freak set of circumstances a near fatal accident provides a two edged sword, he is alive but just look at the world he is forced to live in. One of the more interesting character arcs in this story occurred mostly in dialogue, the transmogrification of Naomie Harris’ character Selena from the typical nice girl into the hardened battle tempered veteran of this fight for survival. In presenting this character Harris successfully treads the fine line between allowing the audience to care and yet remain fascinated by her resourcefulness and drive. In all the cast is up to the challenge of balancing a post apocalyptical thrill with an emotional look at the extremes of human behavior. The performances by Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns as father-daughter survivors aptly demonstrates this point, they contrast of the familiar relationship with the external hardships adds a little spice to the mix. It did remind me of the relationship between the hero and a young orphan girl in Triffids. It are portrayals like this that ground the audience and allows them to become emotionally invested in the characters. If you don’t care about these people the action and drama is lost.
Director Danny Boyle is perhaps best known for his drug addict flick Trainspotting. True to this style he brings the same unblinking eye to bear on this tale. The decision that impacted this film most was Boyle’s use of an off the shelf consumer level digital camera. While it provides us with a gritty, almost documentary feel to the film it lacks the video clarity and detail that would have permitted the audience a bit more satisfaction. For a director with really only one film known to the general public this choice was a risk. Many people are turned off by this almost Blair Witch like approach having the ‘seen that before’ feeling. For a thriller pacing is everything. So too much of the horror too soon and too often and you lose the audience. By the same token too much exposition will bore them. Boyle constructed this story basically in three acts preceded by a brief prolog. In the opening act we are introduced to the main characters and their plight. The second act expands the story and draws us ever deeper into the horror. The third act does fall apart somewhat. I found the conclusion to be lacking just a bit but overall the film lived up to expectations. While Boyle was with out a doubt influenced by directors like George Romero he tips his hat to their talent while establishing his own style of storytelling. Boyle transmits the feelings of horror and dread to the audience without degrading his production into the all too typical blood bath.
The DVD itself was extremely well done. It really demonstrated how additional material can be presented. The Dolby 5.1 audio provided the required spooky ambience giving the viewer the feeling on being in the midst of the film. The soundstage was just a bit flat at times but overall did spread out into the room. The video as noted above was grainy and dark by design. The version presented in widescreen format gave the feeling of dark foreboding dread nicely. The commentary by writer and director was somewhat more interesting than many such chats. Enough details were provided to satisfy the arm chair director. There are three alternate endings provided. While in theatrical release one was shown to the public but here we get to see the alternative choices and pick our own favorite. It’s a good thriller, one that has ultimately earn its right to stand beside other members of the genre.