I vividly remember going to see ’28 Days Later’ at a cinema with a friend. Zombies weren’t nearly the ubiquitous horror presence they are now - they were on a creative hiatus. Movies that featured the slow-moving creatures seemed more like platforms for mindless, gory gross-outs with little reason to recommend them.
With that in mind, we were easily ambushed by this low-budget, white-knuckled, hell-for-leather UK horror film, starring then-unknowns Cillian Murphy (‘Peaky Blinders’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Batman Begins’) and Naomie Harris (‘Spectre’, ‘Moonlight’). The direction of Danny Boyle (‘Trainspotting’, ‘Steve Jobs, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), epic score by John Murphy, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and running zombies combined for a deliriously frenetic adventure.
After Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald filmed a tepid adaptation of Alex Garland's novel ‘The Beach’, Garland approached Macdonald about his concept for ‘28 Days Later’. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Garland explained, “At the point I was working on ‘28 Days Later’ I had a lot of zombie movies as well as video games like ‘Resident Evil’ turning round in my head. I knew most of the time when I was lifting from something, or paying homage, or whatever the most honest way of phrasing it is. It’s not like I had to do research.” Boyle later identified John Wyndham's ‘The Day of the Triffids’ as Garland's original inspiration for the story.
In Cambridge, three animal liberation activists break into a medical research laboratory. A scientist in the lab desperately warns them against releasing the captive chimpanzees, which are infected with a highly contagious rage-inducing virus. It is so virulent that it can be spread by a single drop of infected blood.
The plot depicts the breakdown of British society following the accidental release of this virus. 28 days later, in London, Jim, a bicycle courier, awakens from a coma in St Thomas' Hospital. He finds the entire hospital deserted. He wanders the streets of London, finding it deserted as well, with signs of catastrophe everywhere. The film eventually focuses upon the struggle of four survivors to cope with the destruction of the life they once knew.
Alex Garland’s ideas were deliciously fresh. The zombies were fast, the (many, many) deaths were unexpected, no mercy was shown and every character had an arc (aside from providing breakout roles for Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, the film was anchored by the always value-adding Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston).
‘28 Days Later’ was also an impressive technical achievement, with many scenes set in normally bustling parts of London such as Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Horse Guards Parade and Oxford Street. To depict these locations as desolate, the film crew closed off sections of street for minutes at a time, usually in early morning before sunrise on Sundays and would have typically around 45 minutes after dawn, to shoot the locations devoid of traffic and members of the public to minimise disruption. Portions of the film were shot on a Canon XL1 digital video camera. DV cameras are much smaller and more manoeuvrable than traditional film cameras, which would have been impractical on such brief shoots. The scenes of the M1 motorway devoid of traffic were also filmed within very limited time periods. A mobile police roadblock slowed traffic sufficiently, to leave a long section of carriageway empty while the scene was filmed. For the London scene where Jim walks by the overturned double-decker bus, the film crew placed the bus on its side and removed it when the shot was finished, all within 20 minutes.
The film’s original score was composed by John Murphy, and tracks from Brian Eno, Grandaddy and Blue States and Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor featured in the movie also appears on the album.
Murphy’s iconic instrumental track, ‘In the House – In a Heartbeat’, was featured over the climactic confrontation of the film (think eye sockets + thumbs + a blood-curdling screech), and recurs in several scenes in the sequel, ‘28 Weeks Later’. It is also featured in a climactic torture and fight scene in 2010's ‘Kick-Ass’ and throughout the sequel ‘Kick-Ass 2’, and in a trailer for the post-apocalyptic Ukrainian videogame ‘Metro 2033’ and appeared again in the ‘Metro Exodus’ trailer, another game in the franchise. The BBC used the track in a number of their television programmes in July 2011. It was used in tense or large scale moments in ‘Top Gear’, ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Richard Hammond's Journey To....’
We were easily ambushed by this low-budget, white-knuckled, hell-for-leather UK horror film.
The song, in essence one long Post Rock-esque build-up, flirts with piano-flavoured clean sections, sinister ultra-distorted guitar and the album’s catchiest non-vocal melody. Eventually, the crescendo breaks, leaving nothing but clean guitar arpeggios.
‘28 Days Later’ was a considerable success at the box office and became highly profitable on a budget of about £5 million. In the UK, it took in £6.1 million, while in the U.S. it became a surprise hit, taking over $US45 million despite a limited release at fewer than 1,500 screens across the country. The film garnered around $US84.7 million worldwide.
Bravo awarded it the 100th spot on their list of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, with the commentators explaining that making the zombies move fast for the first time was a bright and effective idea. In 2007, Stylus Magazine named it the second-best zombie movie of all time. Bloody Disgusting ranked the film seventh in their list of the Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade, saying "Zombie movie? Political allegory? Humanist drama? ‘28 Days Later‘ is all of those things and more – a genuine work of art by a director at the top of his game."
’28 Days Later’ is credited with reinvigorating the zombie genre of horror film, with Robert Kirkman launching his multimedia juggernaut ‘The Walking Dead’ franchise (whose protagonist, Rick, wakes up from a coma alone in a hospital before exploring a deserted city) in 2003 and Zack Snyder making his feature film debut with the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake (featuring sprinting zombies) in 2004. The film spawned a great 2007 sequel, ‘28 Weeks Later’, an extremely good graphic novel titled ‘28 Days Later: The Aftermath’, which expands on the timeline of the outbreak, and a very good 2009 comic book series titled ‘28 Days Later’ following Naomie Harris’ character, Selena.
“The rights to ‘28 Days’ were frozen, effectively, because they were shared between Danny [Boyle], [producer] Andrew [McDonald], myself, and Fox,” Alex Garland said in a 2015 interview. “After the second one, none of us really wanted to do another. Fox may or may not have, I don’t know.”
But Garland has said a third picture is slowly moving forward with McDonald, the producer of the first two ‘28’ films and a producer on all of his movies thus far and many of Boyle’s films. “About two years ago, Danny started collaborating on the potential to make ‘T2 Trainspotting,’ another sequel,” he explained. “In that conversation, an idea for ’28 Months’ arrived. I had a sort of weird idea that popped into my head. Partly because of a trip I’d taken. I had this thought, and I suggested it to Andrew and Danny, but I also said I don’t want to work on it. I don’t really want to play a role, and Andrew said, ‘Leave it to me.’ So he’s gone off and is working on it.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty simple,” he said of the idea. “Don’t you think those are, in a way, better? Because there is no momentum now, and you’ve had an organic, real spark about where I can take this. And it just popped into your head, kind of thing. Rather than, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a sequel.’”
We wait with baited breath to see if ’28 Months Later’ can complete what may be the UK’s greatest modern horror movie trilogy.