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Released in 2002, 28 Days Later is one of the best British horror movies in the last 15 years and helped to revitalize the zombie sub-genre thanks to the efforts of Danny Boyle, Alex Garland and producer Andrew MacDonald – titans of the British film industry.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) is a motorcycle courier who awakes from a coma to find that London has been abandoned and most of the remaining people have become raged filled monsters. After being found by a group of survivors, they tell Jim what happened to Britain and when they hear a radio message promising sanctuary near Manchester, Jim along with the battle-hardened woman Selena (Naomie Harris) plus father and daughter Frank and Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns), decide it’s best to take their chances up north.
28 Days Later was the second time Danny Boyle worked with material from Alex Garland – Boyle previously adapted Garland’s debut novel The Beach, but it was Boyle’s weakest movie; 28 Days Later started Garland’s career as a screenwriter and the Boyle, Garland, MacDonald trio ending up making Sunshine together; Garland and MacDonald collaborated on Never Let Me Go, Dredd and Ex Machina.
Boyle and Garland were open about their influences on 28 Days Later. Jim waking up in hospital after the disaster was taken from Day of the Triffids, the scenes of Jim walking around an empty London were a homage to The Omega Man and zombie classics Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were referenced, like the fuel depot scene and the army holding an infected person captive so they could experiment with it. However, 28 Days Later is also an influential movie in the horror genre – the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead uses fast zombies instead of traditional slow zombies, Shaun of Dead made reference to 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead comics and TV series borrow elements – at least in their early runs. The first episode of the fifth series of The Walking Dead bares some similarities to 28 Day Later‘s finale.
Even though 28 Days Later is reference heavy – people who are not knowledgeable about the horror genre can enjoy the movie. As a story, its stands by itself and is a horror classic in its own right. Some of the best moments in the movie are when Jim is exploring London, bewildered because of the emptiness of the street. It was truly haunting as Jim tries to piece together what happened, seeing desperate people taking their own lives – including people close to him. Boyle brought out a bleak atmosphere of a hopeless world, but he still allows for moments of dark humor and tranquility. However some of Garland’s writing is fixed to the time it was made: the Rage virus was released after animal rights activists break into an animal testing lab – the nineties and noughies saw a lot of activity from militant groups, but it is not as much of an issue as of now.
Boyle sought out fairly unknown actors when casting the movie and Murphy and Harris were given early roles – we know that it turned out very well for them. Murphy’s Jim was the audience surrogate, the man who has to ask the important questions to survivors who have lived through the outbreak and he has to learn to accept his dark side to survive in this world – while Selina was willing to take any action to protect herself. Christopher Eccelston, who previously worked with Boyle on Shallow Grave, had a calm authority and similarly friendly persona as the army major but this is a mask to his dark intent and that made him a more threatening villain. However Megan Burns as the teenage Hannah was the weak link in the cast – 28 Days Later was Burns’ second and last credit as an actress – having a career in music afterwards. Her delivery was stiff throughout the movie – even when she’s meant to be scared and traumatized by what she has seen.
28 Days Later was also an early movie for cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – now one of the best men in the profession – working on movies like Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Rush. He shot the movie with A digital camera: making it one of the first movies to be shot this way. The production used the Canon XL1 camera that were lighter than traditional cameras – and the movie had a grainy look that fitted the post-apocalyptic setting but it shows the movie’s age today. Boyle and Mantle also used a shaky cam style for action sequences involving the infected – before the technique became overdone. This made scenes with the infected fast and frantic as survivors desperately try to fight them off.
28 Days Later was a hit in the UK and US and its status as a horror movie has only grown with age. It is often placed highly on Best Horror Movie lists and it truly is a Great British horror flick, spawning a surprisingly good sequel.