At one point in 28 DAYS LATER, a character makes the salient point that from a geological viewpoint, the reign of human beings on planet Earth is barely a blip on the radar of existence. Humans might, indeed, be thought of as an anomaly and their disappearance could be construed as a return to normalcy. Its such ponderings that pole-vault this end-of-the-world story into a realm miles above your typical horror flick.
Make no mistake, this is a truly, deeply and disturbingly creepy exercise in speculative fiction. Its horror, though, doesn’t spring so much from the zombies, or to be more precise, the infected who have wiped out civilization as we know it. They are, the script takes pains to point out, poor mindless creatures, done in by virus identified nebulously only as rage. Talk about your apt metaphors. They’re victims, too, albeit victims that tear the uninfected limb from limb while spewing blood themselves from all orifices and all over the place.
No, the real terror here is how the last remnants of humanity, the uninfecteds, that is, choose to deal with the end of the world as we know it. That’s a scenario that slithers just a little too close to home given what’s going on in the world between the fanatics and the so-called cooler heads convinced that they’re doing is what’s best for everyone.
And the opening ties neatly into that theme. A group of animal activists liberate chimpanzees from a lab where the usual brands of unholy experiments are being performed on them. Its a move rife with good intentions and we all know what the road to hell is paved with. The experiment is a virus that infects in 20 seconds or less leaving the infectees as those blood-spewing mindless killing machines I was just talking about. In a nice bit of either irony or poetic justice, depending on your point of view, the first human to be infected is an activist trying to do the right thing, which includes ignoring dire warnings from the lab technician in charge of the chimps.
From lab to societal upheaval is a frighteningly short jump of the eponymous 28 days. The carnage and the mayhem are part of another existence as our hero, Jim (Cillian Murphy), who has slept through it all in a coma, wakes up naked as a baby fresh from the womb born into a world that bears only the most passing of resemblances to the one he left. Plucking the IVs from his arm in an ersatz cutting of his umbilical cord, he wanders first the empty and disordered hospital and then the empty and disordered streets, gorging on junk food and trying to puzzle together just what the heck has happened here. We, like him, get only glimpses of that from the ragged newspapers he finds featuring tales of unfocused chaos. Screenwriter Alex Garland adds a jarring sense of reality by including in Jims wanderings a wall of pictures in Piccadilly Circus that bears what cannot possibly be in unintentional resemblance to similar walls that sprang up near the World Trade Center after 9/11. Unfortunately, nothing warns Jim about wandering into dark buildings, even churches. A piquant turn has the first person he meets be an infected priest, from whom he barely escapes and whose sound thrashing carries for Jim theological conundrums.
Jim eventually meets up with a handful of other uninfecteds, including a machete-wielding warrioress (Naomie Harris), a father (Brenden Gleeson), and his adolescent (Megan Burns) who are each as shell-shocked as he is in their own unique ways. In a leap of the sort of faith that is born of no other options, they head for a sanctuary outside of London based on weak radio signal that promises a cure for the infection for anyone who makes it there.
Danny Boyle, who mined humor as well as nihilistic angst in TRAINSPOTTING, doesnt slack here either when it might have been just as easy to let the story do all the work for him. He uses a ragged, jump-cutting style to his visuals and washed out colors, even the blood has a fetid cast to it, to set the mood. But the eyes of the infected glow with hemoglobins bright red, their movements have an eerie wrongness to them, not quite smooth, a simulacrum of their ebbing humanness. Yet, quite rightly, they remain in the background. This is a meditation on what it means to be human, after all. Boyle, Garland, and a crack band of actors who never succumb to melodrama, effectively plunge us into a world where reason is gone, replaced by fear in all its ugly manifestations, and where sanctuary, run by an army Major (Christopher Eccleston) and his men, has a price that calls into question the wisdom of fighting to keep humanity around.
28 DAYS LATER has the unsettling whiff of the familiar. Its not too great a stretch of the imagination to see the seeds of what it depicts evident every time we pick up a newspaper or flip on the cable news. So while the chill-inducing memory of ravening, murderous hordes of the not-quite-dead bearing down on their hapless victims will fade, its that subtext that will continue to be the stuff of nightmares.