“Something in the blood” | 28 Days Later… (2002)

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When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? It’s a question that quite a lot of critics and viewer may have asked themselves when they saw Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, released in the UK in October 2002 before opening internationally over the subsequent twelve months (the USA got it in July 2003, Australia in September). On a technical level it’s patently not a zombie movie, because it doesn’t actually feature any zombies – not in the strict George A. Romero ‘walking dead’ sense. On the other hand it demonstrates pretty much all of the tropes and traditions of the sub-genre, leading one to question if it looks like a zombie movie and feels like a zombie movie, then what else can it possibly be?

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic England a month after a viral outbreak has decimated the population, devastated society and thrown the entire island of Great Britain under an international quarantine. A bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma in a London hospital and is forced to negotiate a dangerous new world where healthy human beings are in short supply and the cannibalistic, frenzied infected ones are around every corner. It is in many ways a surprising film, because its director – Danny Boyle – demonstrated no science fiction leanings prior to making it. As viewers we’re generally used to filmmakers staking a fairly broad claim on particular genres, however Boyle remains one of the few directors working today who jumps effortlessly from one style of film to another. He’s brilliantly difficult to pin down. So after the domestic thrills of Shallow Grave (1994), the heroin-injected drama of Trainspotting (1996), the surreal comedy of A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and the Hollywood-funded action of The Beach (2000), a zombie movie was just another unexpected jump from a filmmaker forging a career out of unexpected jumps.

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The film initially came out of conversations between Boyle’s regular producer Andrew McDonald and author Alex Garland, whose 1996 novel The Beach had inspired Boyle’s most recent film. ‘Alex is just a natural story teller,’ said McDonald, ‘and I wanted to make a film which had the same energy and excitement of reading one of his books. When he said that he’d always wanted to do science fiction, I encouraged him to look to H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, something set in Britain.’[1]

What Garland delivered was a 50/50 blend of American-style zombies and a very British sense of quiet, dignified apocalypse. ‘I see it as a sort of oblique war film,’ said Garland, ‘relayed via seventies zombie movies and British science fiction literature, particularly J.G. Ballard and John Wyndham.’[2]

The John Wyndham reference is a telling one, as despite the zombies 28 Days Later falls most comfortably into a very British sub-genre of apocalyptic science fiction. These ‘quiet apocalypses’ generally don’t involve a nuclear explosion or massively traumatic crisis. Rather, the world simply slips away into ruin, leaving the survivors to wander through its wreckage in a sombre, melancholic fashion. It’s a form of science fiction that Wyndham was particularly skilled at developing through classic novels like The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953). Of course 28 Days Later ultimately took more than inspiration from The Day of the Triffids; it took its entire first act, in which a protagonist wakes in a deserted hospital and discovers that the world ended while he was asleep. What’s interesting about this massive appropriation of Wyndham’s novel is that Garland is not the only writer to do it: Robert Kirkman’s popular zombie comic book and television drama The Walking Dead stole the exact same sequence for exactly the same purpose. It enables the protagonist to wake in exactly the same position as his audience, and to discover and explore his brave new world at precisely the same pace as them.

Garland never hesitated to admit the debt his screenplay owed to Wyndham’s novel. ‘In 28 Days Later,’ he said in one interview, ‘it was really to facilitate a lift from Day of the Triffids – where a guy goes into hospital and the world is normal, then comes out and everything is turned on its head.’[3]

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Garland completed a 50 page draft script for McDonald, who immediately sent it to Danny Boyle. At this point the director had recently completed work on The Beach, a gruelling production that had started as a low budget movie starring Ewan MacGregor to a US$55 million studio-funded behemoth starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Boyle had not enjoyed the experience of making an extensive studio feature, and was keen to return to lower budget and independent filmmaking. He first directed two short features for BBC television, before agreeing to direct 28 Days Later.

Even considering the jumps in genre from Shallow Grave to A Life Less Ordinary to The Beach, the leap to a fully-fledged horror movie seemed a big one. In interviews promoting 28 Days Later Boyle seemed inclined to agree. ‘Well, that’s a bit of a sore point, really,’ he told Empire, ‘I said right at the beginning that I didn’t want to make a zombie film and tried not to make a zombie film.’[4]

‘I like zombie movies,’ Boyle admitted, ‘but they come out of a particular period, a society paranoid about what might be the dirty result of nuclear weapons and power. I’m not a big aficionado of the genre, I like it a lot, but I love that Alex gave us a twist on the viral apocalypse theme – that this is not a clinical virus but a psychological one – so in the long run I feel there was respect for the genre but I hope that we freshened it up in some way.’[5]

‘I love doing scary,’ said Boyle, ‘it’s a delight. I think it’s why so many people make horror movies. It’s that Hitchcock thing: it’s so delicious working out how to frighten people.’[6]

One thing Boyle specifically did not do in preparing 28 Days Later was watch any zombie films. ‘Normally, I would watch everything and immerse myself totally in a genre. But on this occasion I tried to maintain my ignorance. Some of the scenarios in 28 Days Later are borrowed from other zombie movies, but I didn’t realise at the time. I think that’s fine; it was an innocence I was after rather than being too knowing.’[7]

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Boyle was particularly attracted to Garland’s concept of a ‘rage virus’. ‘We see the manifestation of it every day in road rage, air rage, hospital rage even supermarket rage,’ Boyle explained. ‘It’s great copy for newspapers but there’s a truly disconcerting side to it.’[8]

The rage virus is, of course, a narrative hook, and doesn’t actually make much sense as an actual viral infection. Writing for the New York Times, Nobel Prize-winning virologist Harold Varmus noted that ‘no virus of a conventional sort can act in this way. Viruses abide by the rules of molecular biology, and it simply takes too long for a virus to grow – copy its genes, make new proteins and particles and then spread in a new host – to produce symptoms so quickly. And there is no known virus that causes disease in every infected individual.’[9] As a storytelling tool, however, the rage virus is a stroke of genius. It creates something very much like a zombie – they want to bite you, getting bitten turns you into one of them, they mass in hordes – but at the same time something far more visceral. These zombies don’t shamble along moaning: they come sprinting towards you screaming and bleeding from the mouth. The former is prone to generate feelings of dread, whereas the latter causes pure, blind panic. Even the time from infection to transformation is shorter. If your best friend is bitten, you don’t have the luxury of a long, painful goodbye. You have mere seconds to shoot them in the head before they try to eat you.

Garland’s main inspiration for the rage virus is clearly the ebola virus, a deadly filovirus popularised in the media by Richard Preston’s non-fiction book The Hot Zone. The virus, communicated via body fluids, causes a haemorrhagic fever. Victims bleed from the mouth, nose, gums, eyes, ears and anus. Their internal organs liquefy. It’s a horrifying virus with a dangerously high mortality rate. Since the publication of Preston’s book ebola and similar viruses have been lucrative fodder for Hollywood, whether on television in The X Files and 24 or in cinemas via films like Outbreak (1995) and Cabin Fever (2002). Perhaps the greatest achievement of Garland’s screenplay is that he links both the virus narrative and the zombie narrative together. It isn’t simply a case of the one leading to the other, as it is in texts like Capcom’s long-running video game franchise Resident Evil; it is a 50/50 blend of the two.

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Before we discuss 28 Days Later any further, let’s try then to answer one of the perennial questions about it: are the infected zombies or not? Alex Garland clearly wrote them as a riff on the standard zombie traditions, whereas Danny Boyle clearly didn’t consider them zombies. In some respects the film falls precisely within the tropes of the zombie genre, yet there are clear differences that separate it from them – for one thing, in 28 Days Later the infected aren’t dead. For another, as I’ve noted above, the infected can run like nobody’s business.

These two differences would seem to separate 28 Days Later from the zombie movies it partially imitates. As writer/actor Simon Pegg, himself a zombie veteran via his film Shaun of the Dead, notes: ‘You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can’t fly; zombies do not run.’[10]

One factor that complicates the question is that subsequent zombie narratives have co-opted the speed of 28 Days Later’s infected and applied them to actual ‘walking dead’ zombies. Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead owes as much to Danny Boyle as it does to George A. Romero’s original. So upon its initial release, the infected of 28 Days Later clearly don’t qualify as zombies, yet through the lens of subsequent productions they fit the profile far more accurately.

Romero cites video games as a key inspiration for the increasing speed of film zombies. ‘Zombies are always moving fast in video games,’ he told Vanity Fair, ‘it makes sense if you think about it. Those games are all about hand-eye coordination and how quickly can you get them before they get you. So the zombies have to keep coming at you, crawling over the walls and across the ceiling. Zombies are perfect for a first-person shooter game, because they exist to be damaged. […] Filmmakers saw what was happening in video games and started thinking, “Well, we’ve got to keep pace and make our zombies fast too.”’[11]

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Andrew McDonald and Duncan Kenworthy’s production company DNA secured fifty per cent of the film’s funding via the lottery-funded UK Film Council, with the remainder coming from American distributor Fox Searchlight, with whom they had collaborated on The Beach in 2000. The film was produced on a budget of roughly five million pounds, significantly below the US$50 million budget afforded to The Beach. The lower budget afforded Boyle significant creative freedom, a freedom he exploited immediately when it came to how to shoot the film as well as how to cast it.

One issue that did arise between DNA and Fox Searchlight was the title: in 2000 Fox had distributed the Sandra Bullock romantic drama 28 Days. ‘Fox said, “Hey, do you want to change the title because people might think it’s a sequel?’ laughed Danny Boyle, ‘but it was too late.’[12]

The film was recorded using digital video rather than the more traditional 35mm film. ‘Electricity and pollution are no more,’ explained Boyle, ‘and a stillness has returned. Digital cameras are much more responsive to low light levels and the general idea was to try and shoot as though we were survivors too.’[13]

Digital video also enabled the film to be shot much more rapidly than if produced using 35mm. This came in particular use during the film’s iconic early scenes, in which protagonist Jim wanders the deserted streets of London. ‘The London scenes were key to the film,’ said McDonald. ‘The police and the local authorities were quite happy to assist us because we could do it so quickly. We could literally be ready to shoot with a six-camera set up within minutes and we were allowed to hold the traffic for minute or two at a time.’[14]

The director of photography was Dod Mantle, with whom Boyle had shot two recent made-for-television films for the BBC. He was shooting Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love in Sweden when Boyle approaching him regarding 28 Days Later. Mantle said: ‘Danny was splaying these pretty horrific pictures of violence on a table in front of me and saying, “This film is, of course, quite violent”.’[15]

Prior to the shoot, Mantle undertook extensive camera tests with London’s Motiving Picture Company to ensure that digital video would be up to the challenge.

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When it came to casting, Boyle targeted relative unknowns rather than ‘name’ actors. Boyle said: ‘We thought that it was more appropriate for the film that it should not be a star vehicle, rather it should be a community of people we cast as equals.’[16] ‘The nature of this film,’ he later said, ‘is that its star is its concept – not the person who’s playing the lead. It’s gonna work or not if you carry off the concept.’[17]

The central role of Jim was played by Irish actor Cillian (pronounced ‘keel-yan’) Murphy. Boyle cast Murphy on the basis of his performance in the 2001 independent film Disco Pigs. The relatively unknown actor was 26 years old at the time. ‘The feeling of a child who is forced to become a man,’ said Boyle, ‘and, by the end of the film, be almost primal, I thought Cillian had that.’[18]

Some years later Murphy looked back on the production. ‘I’d done small little Irish films,’ he said, ‘but nobody had seen those, so it was huge to be able to work with somebody like Danny Boyle. I mean, even before the Oscars, before all of the success he’s had since, Trainspotting was just sort of burned into my consciousness as a teenager growing up. And also Shallow Grave. So the chance to work with him in a leading role was just a dream.’[19] In another interview, given in 2007, Murphy noted: ‘It was very courageous of Danny to cast me in that role when I was that young with so little experience.’[20]

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Naomie Harris was hired to play the part of Selena, a survivor who teams up with Jim in order to survive. Harris was a former child actor with credits on British television including Simon and the Witch (1987) and The Tomorrow People (1992). When hired by Danny Boyle she had recently completed studies at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. ‘I spent most of the time after leaving drama school unemployed,’ said Harris in an American interview. ‘It’s really tough to get started as a new actress and over here, as in England, it’s about people willing to take a risk on a newcomer. And nobody really wants to do that because everybody’s job is on the line. The great thing about someone like Danny Boyle is that he has the guts to take a risk on a newcomer.’[21]

During training for the film, Harris experienced a mishap with a machete and almost cost one of the film’s stunt artists an eye. ‘I scratched his cornea,’ she said, ‘and he was being really polite, saying, “Oh, no, it’s fine. I’ve got two.” But he told me later, when we had become friends, that if he had known me better, he would have told me to eff off.’[22]

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In the role of Frank, Danny Boyle cast Irish actor Brendan Gleeson. ‘Having seen The General and all his other films I wanted this big, warm, beautiful man, this true father figure. You can feel the change in the film when Brendan comes on. His warmth and generosity comes out both on film and off.’[23]

Gleeson said: ‘I was a little uneasy about whether the film was what I thought it was or not, but immediately I really wanted to have a go at that character. I had a chat with Danny Boyle and I found out that the film was as good as I thought it was.’[24]

Frank’s teenage daughter Hannah was played by Megan Burns.

As part of the preparation for the film, Boyle instructed his cast to read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. He also had the entire cast – including the leads – attend a ‘zombie workshop’ to help develop physical movements and tics for the film’s infected characters. ‘We all had to be zombies,’ explained Naomie Harris, ‘which was fun and somewhat liberating. Especially for my character, because it is such a long way away from who I am and she is such a strong character.’[25]

Select members of the cast also met with veterans of the Bosnian War, who described them their experience seeing the collapse of civil order and the deaths of both armed fighters and civilians.

The film commenced shooting on 1 September 2001 on a nine-week schedule. The film was released in the United Kingdom on 1 November 2002, exactly thirteen months later.

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28 Days Later begins in a laboratory in Cambridge, as animal liberation activists break in to free several captive chimpanzees. Their efforts are interrupted by a researcher (David Schneider), who desperately attempts to warn them that the chimpanzees are infected with a virus named ‘rage’. They ignore his warnings, and get attacked by the first chimpanzee that they release. Within the frantic space of 20 seconds, every human in the laboratory is either dead or infected with the virus, as shrieking, banging chimpanzees cheer them on.

Despite being the first scenes of the film, the laboratory sequences were actually shot last, using Schwaben Park in Germany. With the exception of this sequence, and Jim’s walk through the deserted streets of London, the entire film was recorded in chronological order.

The opening sequence is an arresting and violent prologue to the main film. It all happens incredibly quickly, with the action playing out as a headlong rush of quick cuts and close-ups. It is a wonderfully panicky opening to the film, and one that’s marvellously contrasted against the scene that follows.

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A caption on the screen: 28 Days Later… Not simply the title of the film, but also a significant piece of narrative information.

Bicycle courier Jim (we never learn his surname) wakes from a coma in St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Our first image of his is his eyes opening. 28 Days Later has a running motif of eyes. This first shot after the title is of Jim’s eyes. We’re repeatedly shown close-ups of the eyes of the infected – indeed later on Frank is infected by blood dripping into his eye. At the film’s climax Jim murders a soldier by driving his thumbs through the man’s eye sockets. The final line of the film is Selena’s: ‘do you think they saw us this time?’ Danny Boyle is highlighting the eyes throughout; maybe deliberately and maybe subconsciously, but it’s as if he’s driving home the fact that we (and the characters) are witnesses to something awful. We see horrible things. Frank sees it so closely that it kills him. To remove a soldier from the story Jim removes his sight.

Jim tries to explore the deserted hospital, and subsequently the streets outside. He finds an increasing number of disturbing things. Hospital corridors full of debris. Broken vending machines, from which he takes cans of soda to drink. Stacked piles of corpses in the car park outside. Abandoned cash, which he pointlessly gathers up and pockets. Empty, silent streets. A double-decker bus, turned onto its side in the middle of the street. Hundreds of missing person notices wrapped around Piccadilly Circus.

Jim’s first journey is arguably the most powerful part of the entire film – it is definitely the most memorable. To achieve the eerie scenes of a deserted London, Boyle undertook a seven-day shoot in July 2001 – eight weeks before the production properly commenced. ‘We were able to shoot for an hour or so,’ said Andrew McDonald, ‘before the city got too busy for us to hold back the traffic.’[26] Since the production budget was too low to have traffic physically shut down, Boyle’s 18 year-old daughter and her friends acted as unofficial traffic wardens, slowing down cars as well as they could while Boyle and the crew got the shots that they required.

At the time of shooting this sequence, Cillian Murphy was the only actor cast in the film. ‘It looks deserted,’ he said of the sequence, ‘but at the edge of the frame people were going nuts trying to get to work, and there were casualties from the night before hanging around.’[27]

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Less than two weeks into the main September shoot the world was rocked by news of a devastating terrorist attack in New York that demolished the iconic World Trade Center and killed more than 6,000 Americans. Scenes already shot, notably Jim walking past a massive wall of missing persons photographs, took on a confronting new prescience. ‘It was very, very strange when 9/11 went down,’ said Murphy. ‘You couldn’t pat yourself on the back and go, “Look how clever we are.” I think Danny and Alex were very tuned in at an early state to the kind of creeping paranoia that was taking the world over.’[28]

The way in which Boyle’s crew shot the early scenes of 28 Days Later – guerrilla-style, using up to 10 cameras at a time, often shooting on the street without permission and in one case turning a double-decker bus on its side, shooting a scene with it, and then removing it within 30 minutes – would not have been possible in the heightened security atmosphere post-9/11. It is only by good fortune that 28 Days Later made it to cinemas in the form that it did.

One musical track that plays here and then recurs throughout 28 Days Later is “East Hastings” by Canadian rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Boyle, an enthusiastic fan of pop and rock music, personally negotiated with the band to use the track in his film. ‘I always try to have a soundtrack in my mind,’ said Boyle, ‘like when we did Trainspotting, it was Underworld. For me, the soundtrack to 28 Days Later was Godspeed. The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head.’[29]

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When Jim wanders into an abandoned church, he finds the floor littered with the bodies of the dead. When he calls out, it turns out that there are several people scavenging among the corpses. These are the infected: humans transformed by the rage virus into rabid, homicidal maniacs. One of them – visibly a priest – attacks Jim, and after he fends off the priest Jim is forced to run for his life down the street.

To ensure the infected’s ability to run was as terrifying as possible Danny Boyle deliberately cast athletes in the roles rather than actors. Casting director Gail Stevens collaborated with an East London athletes agency to find as many former professional runners as possible, and incorporated them into the film. ‘It was amazing,’ said Boyle. ‘Really scary. They can bounce on you without hurting you. So all the zombies are athletes. There’s a genuine tension, a muscular power in them. It was a great discovery.’[30]

We have reached the second sudden contrast in the film, as Boyle jumps from Jim’s silently exploring London to Jim running for his life from screaming, cannibalistic monsters. Their speed is such that the scene takes on a visceral quality: it feels much more real and terrifying than a standard horror movie chase. Just when it looks as if Jim’s story is going to end very abruptly, he’s rescued by two masked survivors who blow up a petrol station to eliminate the pursuing infected. In their London Underground hideout, they reveal themselves as Serena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley).

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There’s a nice contrast between Serena and Mark. Mark has kept his hopes up: the first thing he says to Jim is a joke. When Jim wants to make the dangerous journey to his parents’ house, it is Mark who agrees that all three should go. On the other hand Serena is a cold, machine-like survivor. She has visibly been traumatised to the point where she can no longer afford to feel anything at all. There’s a deliberate callousness to her nature that makes her quite difficult to like. When preparing for the film shoot, Danny Boyle had each of the cast (with the exception of Cillian Murphy) work out for themselves what had happened in the past four weeks to put their characters into the situation where the film would find them. Naomie Harris elected to have Serena be the sole survivor of her entire family, having had to personally kill them when they became infected.

The following morning Jim, Serena and Mark walk across London to Jim’s parents’ house, where he discovers that they committed suicide in their bed rather than become infected by the rage virus. ‘I didn’t see the bodies until I actually opened the door,’ explained Cillian Murphy. ‘It was genuinely the first time I’d seen them. And also, they’d done this fantastic thing; they had created the smell in the room – the smell of decomposing bodies. So you went in there and saw that and there was this smell.’[31]

Mark, Selena and Jim spend the night camped out in Jim’s parent’s house. In the middle of the night Jim lights a candle in the kitchen, drawing the attention of one of the infected outside. While the three survivors manage to kill the infected, Mark has been badly cut – and despite his pleas, Serena murders him with her machete before he can turn on them.

Selena’s murder of Mark is a significant one, because it is the moment that the sheer horror Jim’s situation becomes clear. She doesn’t simply kill Mark – she violently and bloodily hacks him to death with a machete in both hands. It isn’t enough that society in Britain has collapsed, and that the infected run around like monsters – even the survivors are forced to become monsters just to continue living.

There is something else rather confrontational about Mark’s death: as viewers we would traditionally expect to see a film like this accentuate the goodness of the human heart, and the worth of kindness. Given their respective personalities, we would imagine the film would side with Mark’s optimism. Instead it sharply sides with Serena: the best you can hope for is to continue living. Anything else is a luxury the characters cannot afford.

Sequences such as the kitchen attack caused significant headaches for Dod Mantle and his camera crew. ‘I remember Danny asking, “How are you going to do this?”’ said Mantle, ‘I said, “I’ll just put the lights on.” And he said, “Well, I forgot to tell you that [because society has fallen apart,] the electricity is all gone.” That slowly sunk in, and after about three days I realized I was in hell.’[32]

To compensate for the difficulty in shooting at night with the digital cameras, many night-time sequences were actually shot during the day and then artificially darkened during post-production.

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The following evening, Jim and Serena notice a set of flashing party lights in the window of an apartment block. They make their way to the apartment, barely surviving another attack by the infected, to find it is the home of Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a middle-aged taxi driver, and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Frank invites them to spend the night in the comparative safety of their barricaded home.

Frank and Hannah’s flat was shot in an actual abandoned apartment block in Waterloo. In one of the film’s more eye-catching sequences, set during the following morning, we discover hundreds of colourful buckets on the apartment block roof, placed by Frank and Hannah to collect rainwater with which to drink and wash. The colourful buckets were found by production designer Mark Tildesley after an earlier attempt using black and grey buckets didn’t look interesting enough on screen. ‘I don’t know how he did it,’ said Boyle, ‘but Mark – who was as disappointed as I was – went and found thousands of colourful buckets in an hour. Literally thousands. It looked beautiful in the end. And the Bengali shopkeeper has shifted three years’ supply in an hour.’[33]

The introduction of Frank and Hannah is a curious one, as within minutes of brutally excising one optimistic supporting character Garland’s screenplay introduces another. Brendan Gleeson is almost jarringly cheerful as Frank, and he brightens the tone considerably in a film dangerously on the edge of becoming almost unwatchably bleak.

As the four survivors fall asleep in Frank’s apartment, the film’s first act comes to a close.

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The next day Frank informs Selena and Jim that their supplies – particularly fresh water – are running out. He plays them a pre-recorded message transmitted by an army blockade near Manchester. The broadcast claims that the soldiers have found ‘the answer to infection’. The group reluctantly board Frank’s taxi cab to make the drive to Manchester and find the source of the recorded broadcast.

The taxi ride from London to Manchester was shot on the M1 motorway; police assistance enabled the crew to delay traffic long enough to give the taxi an empty road from horizon to horizon. The entire sequence was shot using 10 cameras over a two hour period on a Sunday morning.

The path to Manchester is cordoned off by a blockade. While the four survivors explore the deserted barricades, a drop of blood from a dead body above them manages to fall into Frank’s eye. It is a shudder-inducing moment of horror, so invasive to think of: someone else’s blood in your eye. Of course one drop is all it takes, and Frank is left with seconds to live before the rage virus takes over.

‘I remember reading,’ said Boyle, ‘how the blink instinct works so fast in order to avoid infection. If danger is sensed, nothing moves in the body as quickly as our eyes.’[34]

Almost as soon as he succumbs to the virus Frank is unexpectedly shot dead by a group of soldiers that had been observing the barricade from hiding. They escort the three survivors to a nearby manor house that they have secured and fortified under the command of Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston).

The sudden appearance of Christopher Eccleston halfway through the film was quite a surprise in 2002, as at the time he was – alongside Brendan Gleeson – the most famous actor in the film. Eccleston had previously worked with Danny Boyle on both his directorial debut Shallow Grave and his BBC TV movie Strumpet (2001).

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Finding the mansion in which Major West and his men had settled proved a significant challenge. Initially the production was to use the five-star Luton Hoo resort hotel, however it was unexpectedly out-bid by a rival film shoot. Another period manor was found, but its owners refused the production permission to use it once they discovered in was to be a horror film. Ultimately a site was found near Salisbury.

By the time the shoot reached Salisbury, Boyle was running behind schedule and was under pressure from the film’s completion guarantors to ramp up the speed of production. A compromise was reached where Major West’s platoon had rigged up floodlights attached to generators – this enabled the exterior night shoot to be recorded using broad, non-specific light rather than specifically crafted lighting.

The comparative safety of the mansion allows the film to take a much-needed breather. The characters – and the audience – are given space to mourn Frank’s death, while West explains the plan to wait out the infected masses until they starve themselves to death. After a progressive series of increasingly bleak plot developments, a ray of light momentarily shines through: there is a way for the characters to survive the film.

The sense of relief is short-lived. Soon Jim learns that West’s solution also includes luring survivors to the manor and forcing any women they attract into sexual slavery – not just to repopulate the species, but also as a reward to his increasingly restless all-male platoon.

‘There was a pragmatism he felt,’ said Eccleston, ‘in offering those women up for rape, which is one of the central things. His pragmatic, military mind was saying if I do this, I will keep control of these men and we can ultimately vanquish the zombies. But he forgets that if he gives up one iota of your humanity, you’re lost.’[35]

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Jim’s attempt to escape with Selena and Hannah ends in failure. He and a rebellious sergeant (Stuart McQuarrie) are led out into the woods to be executed. Selena and Hannah are made to dress in evening wear and prepared to be gang raped.

It is telling that within an extraordinarily bleak horror film, the blackest moments come at the hands of uninfected human beings and not from the zombies. When Jim escapes from his captors and goes on the run, the film enters its astonishingly violent third act in which he murders his pursuers, lets an infected soldier loose inside the mansion and hunts through the chaos for Selena and Hannah – who have become separated.

At this point in the narrative it is well worth revisiting Alex Garland’s admission that 28 Days Later owed its opening scenes to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. The reason that it is worth returning to Wyndham’s book at this stage is that 28 Days Later’s third act is directly lifted from the novel as well. The only significant difference in Wyndham’s version is that instead of releasing an infected soldier to let hell break loose, the protagonist of Triffids opens the gates for the carnivorous plants to enter the compound instead.

It remains a significant weakness of 28 Days Later that, for all of its excellent direction and strong performances, it remains saddled on a screenplay that has lifted so much from an external source. It’s lifted from an extremely good source, and adapted very successfully, but there remains a constant dissatisfaction around the edges of this film. It is far beyond homage but not quite plagiarism, yet it sits closer to the latter than the former and the entire work suffers as a result. An unfortunate side effect, of course, is that given how effectively 28 Days Later co-opts the Triffids narrative, it’s going to be next-to-impossible for anyone to produce an authentic Day of the Triffids feature film for a generation. (One recent attempt, a 2009 BBC television miniseries, deviated significantly from the plot of the novel – I can only assume because it would have made it too similar to 28 Days Later.)

At the height of the chaos a gore-covered Jim rescues Selena from Corporal Mitchell (Ricci Harnett). He murders Mitchell by driving his fingers through the soldier’s eyes. To survive a world full of monsters, Jim has been forced to become a monster himself. ‘It was fantastically well done by the actors,’ said Boyle. ‘We had a dummy head when Cillian digs his fingers right in, but the rest of it was all done live. I’d say 70 per cent of it is sound acting. The soldier’s scream is just blood curdling.’[36]

The night shoot for the film’s climax was a challenging one for the actors, given the falling temperatures in November and the extensive rainfall in the sequence. ‘It’s just horrible,’ recalled Naomie Harris, ‘we were filming outside in November and it was raining, we had wind machines. It was freezing cold and y’know I’m just wearing that flimsy red dress. Nothing to protect you against the elements. And then Cillian had his shirt off most of the time as well, so we discovered halfway through making the movie that, you know those swimmers that do the cross-channel swimming? They lather themselves up with Vaseline and that’s supposed to protect you from the elements. And that’s what we did, every night, lathering ourselves up.’[37]

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While Jim, Selena and Hannah escape the manor grounds in a car, Major West is dragged away by the infected to be torn to pieces. Jim has been badly wounded: while Selena and Hannah rush him to a deserted hospital, it does not look like he is going to survive.

Then Jim wakes, another 28 days later. He is recovering from his wounds in a cottage on a Scottish hillside. Outside he sees Selena and Hannah, and together they unroll a massive banner to alert the Finnish aeroplane flying overhead: they have survived the outbreak, the infected are indeed starving to death, and international help is finally on its way.

The final scene of the film was shot on 35mm film rather than digital video, in order to subtly give the impression that things had brightened up for the characters. This optimistic coda is one of three separate endings that were developed. At first, both Garland and Boyle were keen to feature a scene in which Jim and Selena manage to find a scientist with a cure for the virus. This was never shot, as it was decided such a conclusion would be unbelievable given the harsh nature of the rest of the movie.

Another ending was shot, in which Jim died as a result of his gunshot wound and Serena and Hannah simply set off on their own together. This was seen as too bleak to use, given the already depressing events of the film as a whole.

28days_21

DNA arranged for a test screening of Boyle’s rough cut to be undertaken in the London suburb of Soho. It was the most disastrous screening of Boyle’s career. ‘It turned out they were all from New Zealand,’ said Boyle, ‘the person who’d done the recruiting had obviously got a quick job lot of Kiwis in a pub. God knows why they allowed such a big group in: if you have a group dynamic going on, they can feel each other’s negativity.’[38] In the end, with Fox Searchlight’s approval, the results of the test screening were ignored and the film released without significant re-editing.

28 Days Later was released in Britain on 1 November 2002. Fox Searchlight released the film in the USA, with the benefit of strong British reviews, the following June. It grossed more than US$82 million worldwide. A 2007 sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was produced but not directed by Boyle. A third film, 28 Months Later, was developed but never put into production.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote: ‘28 Days Later turns out to be a kind of mod vérité companion piece to Night of the Living Dead. Where George A. Romero, in his Dead trilogy, filmed the ghouls as flesh-eating lumberers, the humanoid monsters of 28 Days Later leap forward with shuddery speed, rasping like demons and vomiting blood.’[39]

Perhaps the best description of 28 Days Later came from British critic Mark Kermode, who wrote: ‘Despite being co-produced by 20th Century Fox, this remains at heart a piece of punk-rock movie-making – quintessentially British, sneeringly aggressive, appetisingly meaty.’[40] A more accurate description of Danny Boyle’s film you are unlikely to find.

 

[1] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[2] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[3] Dennis Widmyer, “Novelist to screenwriter and back to novelist”, ChuckPalahniuk.net, 30 July 2007.

[4] Quoted in “Danny Boyle and Alex Garland interview”, Empire, October 2002.

[5] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[6] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[7] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[8] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[9] Harold Varmus, “Virus as metaphor: microbiology and 28 Days Later”, New York Times, 6 July 2003.

[10] Simon Pegg, “The dead and the quick”, The Guardian, 4 November 2008.

[11] Eric Spitznagel, “George A. Romero: ‘Who says zombies eat brains?’”, Vanity Fair, May 2010.

[12] Quoted in “Movie preview: 28 Days Later”, Entertainment Weekly, 25 April 2003.

[13] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[14] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[15] Douglas Bankston, “Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF injects the apocalyptic 28 Days Later with a strain of digital video”, American Cinematographer, July 2003.

[16] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[17] George Palathingal, “Making a killing”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 September 2003.

[18] Quoted in “Luck of the Irish”, Backstage, 18 November 2005.

[19] Will Harris, “Cillian Murphy”, AV Club, 28 October 2011.

[20] Staci Layne, “Cillian Murphy interview”, Horror.com, 16 July 2007.

[21] Quoted in “28 minutes with Naomie Harris”, Cinema Blend, accessed 25 July 2013.

[22] Dee O’Connell, “Naomie that girl…”, The Observer, 20 October 2002.

[23] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[24] Rebecca Murray, “Brendan Gleeson talks about Cold Mountain”, About.com, 18 December 2003.

[25] Quoted in “28 minutes with Naomie Harris”, Cinema Blend, accessed 25 July 2013.

[26] Quoted in 28 Days Later… production notes, 2002.

[27] Nev Pierce, “Cillian Murphy”, BBC Movies, 30 October 2002.

[28] Kevin Maynard, “28 Days Later star bares all”, USA Today, 2 July 2003.

[29] Kitty Empire, “Get used to the limelight”, The Observer, 10 November 2002.

[30] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[31] Nev Pierce, “Cillian Murphy”, BBC Movies, 30 October 2002.

[32] Douglas Bankston, “Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF injects the apocalyptic 28 Days Later with a strain of digital video”, American Cinematographer, July 2003.

[33] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[34] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[35] Simon Brew, “Christopher Eccleston: Thor, Star Trek, Let Him Have It”, Den of Geek, 27 October 2013.

[36] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[37] Kelly Parks, “28 Days Later: The Naomie Harris interview”, FEO Amante, 2003.

[38] Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2010.

[39] Owen Gleiberman, “28 Days Later”, Entertainment Weekly, 27 June 2003.

[40] Mark Kermode, “28 Days Later”, Sight & Sound, December 2002.

  1. Wonderful article, I really enjoyed it!

    Reply

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