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Empire List #456: 28 Days Later

Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma in a London hospital. He is surprised to notice the ward is empty. As he walks around he realises the entire building is deserted. When he steps outside it becomes clear London is a ghost town. What has happened? Animal activists have accidentally released a virus that turns people into raging zombies, and now, 28 days later, Jim’s nightmare is just beginning.

Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” came out in 2003, just when I had moved back from South America to Quebec. That was a great year for me in terms of movies, since I could now watch movies in the theatres at the same time as everybody else in North America. For some reason, movies released in the U.S would sometimes come out six months later in Peru. Not so in Quebec, but unfortunately most of the movies are dubbed in French.

Since I wanted to experience the horror in its original language, and since back then my mom was subscribed to the Movie Network, I just had to bid my time. First I saw the previews on TV calling this one of the scariest movies of all times. Then it came out on DVD, which advertised shocking alternate endings. Then there were the previews for pay-per-view. Then finally, one evening after school, it was playing on the Movie Network. It was uncut and commercial free, just the way I like it. I didn’t get any DVD bonus features, but if you wait until after the end credits, you get to see one of the alternate endings.

“28 Days Later” is a perfect movie to watch alone at night in a basement. The zombies are scary enough to give you a jolt whenever they barge in screaming from a dark corner. Unlike the movies of horror master George A. Romero, these zombies can run, and boy, are they fast when they see a prey. That was always the flaw in the Romero movies: the zombies were so slow that all you had to do was run away from them and not get cornered. But the monsters in Danny Boyle’s movie are not the walking dead. They have been infected by a virus that keeps them alive but in a permanent state of rage. If one tiny drop of infected blood gets into your bloodstream, 20 seconds later you are a snarling, raging creature.

These details are explained to Jim by Selena (Naomi Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), two survivors who have had to set their morals aside in order to survive. This becomes abundantly clear to Jim when Selena kills Mark in cold blood after he is scratched during a fight with an infected.

There is a glimmer of hope out of this nightmare when Jim and Selena meet two more survivors, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). They live in a fortified apartment, but they are running low on supplies. Frank suggests they take their chances on the road and head towards a military base that offers salvation, according to a radio broadcast. Frank has one of those black London cab, so the four of them will have an advantage over the hordes of infected waiting for them when darkness falls.

It makes for quite a scary road trip, but there is room to breathe. There is a funny sequence when the group stops at a grocery store and fulfil everyone’s long-time fantasy of filling a shopping cart with all of the best items. Best of all, there is no need to pay for anything. It’s pretty clear the grocer is elsewhere.

A truly scary sequence occurs when the cab is blocked in an underground tunnel. As the group tries to clear the way, you can hear the infected running towards them, screaming like demons. This is one of those moments when as an audience member you feel like screaming, “Get out of there! The monsters are coming!”

Even when characters are alone in the woods there is tension. You just never know when an infected might jump out at them without warning.

Eventually the survivors find the soldiers. Their commander is Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) who, at first, seems reassuring but has a hidden agenda. An obvious warning sign is the fact that he keeps an infected soldier in his backyard chained like a dog. He says the point is to learn about the infected, but it says a lot more about Major West than it does about the infected.

“28 Days Later” reinvented the zombie movie while at the same time staying faithful to its traditions. It does a wonderful job of creating a world that has been decimated by a viral outbreak. As Jim walks through an abandoned London, it truly looks the city that we have either seen in news footage or in real life. The movie also shows how, during a crisis, people will behave at either their best or their worst.

The infected are scary because you know they will mangle and infect you. People are scary because you don’t know what they will do once law and order goes out the window.

(Note: The sequel, “28 Weeks Later” was equally intelligent. It served as a metaphor for the war in Iraq.)  



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