Inventive is perhaps not a word that most people would associate with the zombie genre nowhere days. The staple filmic expectations, which we have come to expect have been ground down and recycled through a multitude of films that are often very below par and seem to dominate an already saturated and tired genre.
Of course there are examples very much to the contrary of this with Shaun of the Dead exemplifying how well a film can adapt expectation with a perfect amalgamation of comedy and genre convention, to create something original and fresh. Unfortunately however these examples are few and far between and seem to be dwindling ever more as all manner of remake, reinvention and reworking emerge. That is why I want to go back and revisit a film that I believe still stands out as one of the more important and unique examples of the zombie film.
28 Days Later (2002) is a zombie film that actually has depth and meaning, whilst also twisting convention and creating something all together different. This gives it the unique advantage of working as a respectable film as well as a genre piece. These attributes may in some respects eradicate its claim to zombie movie status by defying what we know to be the genres core conventions, very little plot and gratuitous gore are just two examples of this. These are however only conventions to which we are familiar because of the association with more films like the Resident Evil franchise and fewer like 28 Days Later. Therefore it should be celebrated as something precious and rare that is often not found in an otherwise confused and stagnant genre.
The plot sounds formulaic enough, a group of animal rights activists break into a research facility and free some chimpanzees that are being tested on. The chimpanzees are harboring rabies / rage type virus that is passed on through saliva and blood, needless to say chaos ensues. We then jump 28 days where Jim (Cillian Murphy) a bicycle courier wakes up from a coma in a deserted hospital and goes out into what he thinks is a deserted London. Here he joins up with a few survivors as they battle the odds and constant threat of the rage infected homicidal infected. From this synopsis it is conceivable that this is just another zombie movie, however it is far from it.
The start of the film in which we see with Jim waking up in a deserted hospital is firstly very original, recently its been emulated in the ABC series The Walking dead, but the stark and beautifully shot imagery of Jim walking through the deserted streets of London is a striking and unforgettable opening to the film. This instigates our initial sense of foreboding and unease which is carried through expertly as the film unfolds.
The survivors Jim finds himself with are not the conventional group either, no well endowed women wearing next to nothing, these are people willing to do anything to survive, including killing each other at a moments notice, as soon as anyone is bitten they have about 30 seconds before they become infected. One brutal scene sees Selena (Naomi Harris) hack her companion to death with a machete after he is bitten by one of the infected. Jim and Selena later team up with a father and daughter, who are trying to wait out the virus in a high rise, they then all decide to try and leave the city together to find any remnants of civilisation left.
The infected are not your average zombies either the rage virus they are infected with making them frantic and unpredictable. This makes them all the more terrifying and a far cry from the slow moving past incarnations. Not that there is anything wrong with this original zombie mould but the infected here were really one of the first to up the ante in the crazed zombie stakes, which makes them utterly more terrifying.
Something that really sets 28 Days later apart though is in the later part of the film in which they meet the British soldiers held up in a fortified manor house. It is here that we in fact encounter the true horror that is of course human nature itself. The soldiers play nice at first but after too long they commandeer the women of the party for their own personal pleasure and, handcuffing poor old Jim, take him out to the woods to be shot. Jim of course escapes and the final chunk of the film becomes a bloodbath as Jim exacts revenge on the soldiers in an attempt to save the women.
This twist alleviates the problems that many films of the genre have which is that often after the initial encounter or two with a group of zombies dismembering someone, they cease to seem as threatening. However this film poses the question of who is really worse? Would you rather be outside with the ‘crazed’ zombies or inside the with the ‘sane’ humans? Working on these levels is important as it adds depth where often there is little. This makes it multilayered film by which you choose the depth to which you want to read into it. On one level it is a zombie horror film. On another it is a depiction of the human psyche and the pit falls of humanity itself.
If 28 Days Later falls down anywhere for me it would have to be the very end. As Jim, Selena and Hannah escape in a car from the manor house. Jim has been and wounded and there is a freeze frame as they smash through the gates. Whether it is to freedom or death we are none the wiser. The film in my opinion could and probably should have ended here, leaving us with a sense of ambiguity as to what happens to any of them. Of course it doesn’t end here and without giving too much away, for those of you that haven’t seen it, it’s a pretty happy ending to a film that shouldn’t have ever had one. With the entirety of the film being utterly bleak there was no need to give it a fairytale ending. It doesn’t seem realistic that there would be one because there was never any hope for the characters in the first place. However not to fear there is in fact an alternate ending which, if like me you prefer a no hope ending there is one in which I believe is much more fitting (below).
Whether 28 Days Later is the best zombie film or not is of course very subjective. To those who are purists and prefer the classic zombie of early George A Romero it probably won’t be or perhaps even come close. However it undoubtedly a great movie in its own right and one that I think should be a shinning example to just how well a little tweaking of genre and a bit of intelligent film making can create what I regard as a modern classic.