28 Days Later is an awesome horror film that, depending on who you ask, may or may not involve zombies. Also, this review will contain SPOILERS, but only in the second half.
I like to think of it as the yin to I Am Legend’s yang. Both movies involve a similar premise–a city devastated by an epidemic brought about by well-meaning scientists trying to cure stuff (God, those scientists, always messing shit up), an epidemic that transforms people into bloodthirsty, super-fast mutant savages. However, whereas I Am Legend took the dubious route of doing almost everything with CGI, 28 Days Later uses old-fashioned makeup, including enough fake blood to fill a football stadium. The effect is a film that is far better, with monsters that are just as scary, thus proving (as if we needed proof) that special effects are highly overrated.
Seriously 28 Days Later is so low-budget that it looks as if it was shot over a weekend by a bunch of bored college guys. It is unashamed of its grainy image quality and shaky camerawork. And in all honesty, it doesn’t matter. Because the makers of 28 Days Later understand that once you have the blood and enough extras to run around and look creepy, you don’t need CGI. What you do need is good characters.
If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s horror/survival/disaster movies in which the protagonists are so dumb, so cliche, or so dull that you want them to die. Isn’t the whole point of a horror movie to instill the audience with terror and dread? To keep them riveted with suspense? Exactly how terrified can we be if none of the good guys are worth rooting for? You can’t be scared if you actually WANT the zombies to win.
Cillian Murphy does a good job playing the protagonist, Jim, who is neither mentally challenged nor unlikeable. He is a bit naive and helpless at first, but then again, he DID just wake up from a coma to find a city full of crazy blood-spitting weirdoes. And he really comes into his stride. If anything, Jim winds up being a little TOO competent. As we watch him take down soldiers with a bayonet and then with his bare hands with all the savagery of Arnold Shwarzenegger, we can’t help but remember that at the start of the film he was just a guy who delivered newspapers from a bicycle. I’m trying to think of a less badass profession. Not sure there is one. Are we really supposed to believe that a courier is able to transform himself into a hardened badass in a few days?
The supporting cast are good enough. The main female lead, Selena, strays a bit too far into cliche, unbeleivably-competent, needlessly rude action chick territory at first, but she grows on you with time. The other main female character doesn’t do all that much, but there’s no reason NOT to like her.
Does this movie has problems? You bet. The biggest one is the time in which it is set. The time frame of 28 Days Later makes absolutely no sense, so it’s best not to think about it too hard.
It’s easy to get caught up in the story, in the desolate imagery of abandoned cities, in the chaos and the post-apocalyptic tone, and forget that it’s only been 28 DAYS (as the title so helpfully reminds us) since the start of all the madness. 28 Days, as in, less than a month. Once you do remember, the coherence of the plot sort of falls apart.
Near the end of the movie, Jim and his female companions (all the male ones somehow manage to die horribly) follow a radio signal to a camp filled with a group of soldiers. These soldiers decide to gang-rape the women and kill Jim, along with one of their own (he wasn’t down with the rape). They want to do this because all hope is lost and they need to repopulate humanity and they can’t endure the torment of not knowing a woman’s touch again and a bunch of other just-as-dumb reasons. Seriously, Colonel McEvil? These are trained professionals we’re talking about, and they’re already making dramatic speeches about the darkness of the human soul and resorting to rape and murder? After only 28 Days? Apparently the British army is full of men who are more sex-crazed than drunken adolescent boys and have a level of combat skill somewhere between the Oscar the Grouch and Justin Bieber. Furthermore, they don’t even know for sure that all hope IS lost. For all they know, only the island of Britain (did I forget to mention, it’s a BRITISH zombie movie) is infected and the rest of the world is fine. Maybe if they’d waited for, I don’t know, a few more days before starting on the evil campaign of rape and murder, everything might have worked out fine for them. Sadly, they are unable to control their animal urges, and, needless to say, Jim is not happy about the situation and proceeds to escape his execution (it’s amazing the British managed to win any wars, with an army like this) and return to kick their treacherous behinds.
Which brings me to the best thing about 28 Days Later. The moment that elevates this movie from just ‘creepy’ to ‘spine-tingling.’ The climax of 28 Days Later, is, simply put, one of the most awesome sequences ever recorded by a camera. Jim frees a zombie that the soldiers were keeping (part of their plan to see how long it took the ‘infected’ to starve to death) and both he and it rampage through the camp, accompanied by one of the most badass songs ever.
Jim loses it completely, and the result is glorious. At this point, It’s hard to tell him apart from the infected. Which is the point. We all get that Danny Boyle is trying to impart some sort of message about the dark side of human nature, perhaps make us question who, truly, are the monsters. Are we really so different from the infected, deep down? It’s a fascinating philosophical and moral conundrum, to be sure, but it’s hard to concentrate on such cerebral matters because we are too busy cackling with glee as we watch those bastardly soldiers get their gory comeuppance in the most spectacular fashion possible.
If this movie had only been named 28 Months Later. Or even, at the very least, 280 Days Later, it would have been a perfect look at the deterioration of human society in the wake of a great catastrophe. The simple fact is that 28 Days is not a sufficiently long period of time to produce the level of insanity and brutality depicted in this movie. It’s an unbelievable premise. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, and buy into that premise, and give the movie the benefit of the doubt, you are in for one great thrill-ride.