The first time I saw 28 Days Later was back in 2013 in a film club at college called The Essentials. It was one of the Halloween picks that I had never seen so naturally I voted for it since it seemed the most interesting of the other picks. I can’t remember what the other ones were but I do remember enjoying this film immensely. Sitting there in that small classroom, transfixed by the storyline and the burning question of why weren’t there more zombies in the film if this is such a classic zombie film?
So….what sets 28 Days Later above the pack when it comes to zombie films? Its zombies are not the slow-moving corpses we’ve seen in its legendary predecessor, Night of the Living Dead. They’re fast and they’re smart. Some of them are even stealthy or have self-awareness. There’s a layer to them that I haven’t really seen in any other zombie movies. I would argue though, 28 Days Later isn’t really about zombies though when it comes down to it. It’s about surviving in a world of monsters and those monsters aren’t always the infected people. Sometimes, the monsters are the survivors too.
Set 28 days after a rage virus is accidentally unleashed upon the world by animal rights activists trying to save chimps from a science testing facility, 28 Days Later, focuses on Jim (Cillian Murphy) who wakes up alone in a hospital and finds himself in the middle of the apocalypse. Fortunately for him, after a close encounter with the infected, he is taken in by a few other survivors and together they try to find a sanctuary where they can escape the infected in the cities.
Though you might expect this film to focus more on its infected antagonists, Alex Garland’s genius script instead highlights its amazing cast of protagonists. As I already mentioned, there’s Jim, who’s lost and alone in this world and needs people who can show him how to survive at the beginning. Selena (Naomie Harris) has already seen a lot in the 28 days the virus has been unleashed on England and she’s grown pretty cold as a result. You can hardly blame her, but she does what it takes to survive. Frank (Brendan Gleeson) is a loving father who’s doing everything he can to keep his teenage daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), alive. These two may be the last hopeful people in the country, if not the world, because they’ve had the benefit of having each other around whereas the other survivors we meet are generally traumatized and broken. This mix of people are really interesting together but I loved their dynamic. The fear and tension in the film doesn’t come just from the zombies, it comes from wondering what will happen to ruin what is otherwise a delightful, makeshift family. It is so easy to invest in the characters and their relationships.
The other piece I really want to underscore, I’ve already kind of mentioned. This film, at its core, is a look at the monstrous nature of humanity. As the film heads into its third act, there’s a moment where Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) is debating with one of his soldiers about what “normalcy” is. The other soldier claims that mankind has been around such a short time in the grand scheme of the planet that if humanity were to be wiped out by this rage virus then the planet would just return to its previous natural state and that’s what “normal” looks like for the planet. West, however, claims that this virus is nothing new. Humans have always been killing humans and even though everyone around them has been completely lost, this doesn’t seem much different to him than it was before the virus. If West is correct that humans have always been savage then where does the put our main characters on the spectrum? Are they also savage creatures or are they something else? Just because humans are capable of great violence doesn’t mean everyone is a monster. It’s nice that this film recognizes the horrifying aspects of humanity while also trying to say that humanity in and of itself is not a monster. Intriguing.
28 Days Later is an undisputed icon of the zombie subgenre and easily my favorite of those that I’ve seen. It’s got a lot to offer while not sticking squarely to the conventions of its featured monster. It’s an overall great film and one of my favorites I’ve watched this month!