Apocalypse fiction is vulnerable to a mistake of human nature: it thinks that a sullied palette and broken window will help us care about a bygone world, as if its apathy will somehow become our motivation. But so many of us want to break the world; we want to be left alone. Destruction cannot motivate us to do better. This is why the best apocalypse stories do not dwell on what badness brought us there, but on how much of it still remains. 28 Days Later is one of them: it knows that dystopia is really a form of reduction. It crops its picture of our world so we can better see the subject.
When Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital he’s splayed in the nude on his bed like a crucifix; we get the sense it was for our sins, not his. He’s a bike messenger, whose near fatal accident saved his life by preserving him through the 28 days it took a deadly virus to overcome the world. He cries desperately for anyone in an empty London. The world of 28 Days Later is a doll’s house of sepulchral cars and blown paper and cans. Beautiful scenery—a coolly monolithic Ferris Wheel, a painted sunset behind the graveyard of a central square—accentuates director Danny Boyle’s answer to dystopia’s common mistake by showing us how much we’re leaving behind, so we can see what’s left. For him, a mosh pit of corpses or compost heap of literature is not as heartbreaking as a gorgeous but empty view, and clouds of news that no longer mean anything. As Jim wanders the deserted streets, we ask if it can even be so beautiful, with no one in it to remember what beauty used to be; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle knows that the only way we can even begin to ask this is if it’s beautiful to us, and so it is. Jim catches up on history by catching it in the wind, at least enough to know how unprepared he is to survive in the relics of London town. This setup gets at our spirit through emptiness; like many of Boyle’s films and especially like Sunshine, it’s the movie’s most inspired part.
Jim strikes down a rabid priest and suddenly notices that God might still be around. Selena (Naomi Harris) scoops him up but without affection. They make love something you have to earn: I’m saying that Harris is cast into a type in this movie and it only hurts a little (she’s good in the type, but it’s in a world where types should no longer exist). You’ve heard the story: Jim is about life and she’s all about living. “It’s as good as it gets, now,” she says. We get the impression that she wasn’t always so tough, and won’t be again by the time the movie’s over.
Along the way, they pick up Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his unimpressive daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). Gleeson’s lumbering sincerity puts a target on his back in movies like this, but Boyle is smart enough to see danger as an opportunity for a road-trip. There’s a radio message inviting survivors to enjoy army protection a few dozen miles outside of Manchester, now a wall of flames. They pack his cab and head out, stopping only for gas and a tire change. Neither of these tasks has ever been so tense.
I’ve delayed mentioning the zombies themselves because for Boyle they aren’t that important, and shouldn’t be. This is low-key stuff for us now, after ten seasons of The Walking Dead (or six if you’re like me and jumped that ship). Their glassy red eyes and frighteningly fast gaits are stylistic genre cues; they are an impression of a zombie film, but for Boyle they might as well be the threat of real people hungry for canned tuna. Like the best zombies, they seem created by the government, or by consumerism. Their presence is proof that the worst powers on earth are gone, and they’re as bad as the reminder of what they used to be. And there’s that flaw in dystopia again: the conflict between wishing things were back to the way they were, and the necessity of acknowledging that the horror of the present is a version of what created it. “There’s always a government,” Jim says with reverence, and now it’s one that fights another government's old citizens, clumped up in piles in subway tunnels vomiting blood. Boyle’s greatest achievement here is that like George Romero but without the showy dialogue to prove it, he makes that seem like a natural cultural development.
The way I'm talking about 28 Days Later sounds like a pleasant dream I didn’t like. It’s because the story’s meat is inspiring and flavorful but the bookends are fast-food writing. The movie opens with a lab of infected apes that spreads the virus; showing exactly how it happened is a rookie mistake because it makes the entire apocalypse depend on the accident of one endeavor. Without this explanation, our minds can go wild: it can only be all of our fault, as it must be, if we never know. Boyle imagined the undead as a natural force, unknowable and ever-present, not so much science as social fiction. That’s why we should have been as lost as Jim, and as willing to accept that causes are as civilized as solutions, that both of them got us here, and neither of them matter anymore. The same problem plagues the film’s ending, which I won’t spoil, but it's like it changes genre for that final act, the same issue he and screenwriter Alex Garland ran into on Sunshine. It involves not only a lot of action junk, but an unreasonable amount of resolution for such a tensely established world.
There’s a recklessly implausible scene where Gleeson’s cab magically drives over a pileup of cars and another where a cartoonish tide of rats flees from a zombie crowd. It may sound strange to say of zombie fiction but plausibility is key because it’s a key to tension: we can’t be wound up by something we don’t believe in. More imagery is restrained than not (these zombies sneak) and the visuals are gritty, meticulous, even showy (lots of dutch angles) but without ego. They’re like an allegorist’s home videos.
Escalations of loneliness or suspense occur within John Murphy's tapestry of music, and nostalgic melodies like “Que Sera Sera” from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (nostalgia turned to despair) make this apocalypse personal. Where Romero would have given us pig guts, Boyle, very light on actual gore, sends us the specter of Doris Day and her refrain “What would I be?” becomes the only question I would ask of the end of this world. The sad beauty of all its colossal wrecks and empty fields becomes the best straight zombie movie of the century (until Train to Busan), as fleetingly beautiful as the rest have been obscene, as though they had to be. Its desolation is not so much physical as spiritual, and for all its occasionally clumsy action and over-literalized devices, that rushed look in Mantle's cinematography that occasionally makes you think of a music video, it is that dynamic between the director and the meaning of the material that so effectively shapes the horror of such a genuine apocalypse. This is a movie that knows how pointless it is to destroy anything we haven’t already destroyed ourselves.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©DNA Films/Fox Searchlight Pictures
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