Y: 28 Days Later… (2002)

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28-days-later-postersYes, it’s the second Blank Tile dropped in two days. I left this one until today so I could point out that it’s “20 DaYs Later” when the Twitter intelligentsia get tired of making rape and death threats and decide this is a good hill to die on.

Dystopic horror movies can put you in a really bad mood.

Some animal rights activists break into a lab, determined to free the chimpanzees that are confined there as test subjects. The trouble being that these chimps are all infected with something called the Rage virus, which is pretty much the primary symptom, it seems. They pay the price of their misguided altruism rather quickly and messily.

Then, as the movie helpfully informs us,  28 Days Later Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a coma in a hospital. It seems Jim was a bike courier who was hit by a car, and as he wanders about a deserted London, he discovers he has slept through the Apocalypse. And then he finds out that London is not quite so deserted at night, which is when the Infected come out.

28-days-later-2002-image-3The Rage virus has spread far and wide, and Jim falls in with Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim is the first uninfected human they’ve seen in nearly a week. Eventually our heroes will meet up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a bluff taxi driver, and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns); Frank’s done his best in an abandoned tower flat, fortified it well. But there has been no rain in ten days, and they’re running out of water. Frank, however, has a hand-cranked radio, and has found a recorded, repeating message from a military base urging survivors to come to them.

Don't get used to it, folks.

Don’t get used to it, folks.

So we have a road trip during a zombie apocalypse: sometimes terrifying, sometimes lovely. The base is found, in an isolated mansion. A small garrison of troops, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has made full use of land mines, razorwire and generators to keep their version of civilization alive. West has a vision of rebuilding civilization from this base, and he has gone about organizing with that aim. The major problem for our heroes is that plan requires women, and they’ve just brought two of them. And these soldiers are more than willing to kill any obstructions to their Utopia.

I’d had 28 Days Later recommended to me as wondrous new twist on the zombie movie, the freshest concept in ages, a shot in the arm to the genre, blah blah blah because this was released right after I signed off on zombie movies for ten years, even the good ones. And make no mistake about it, 28 Days Later is a very good movie.

28-days-later-red-eyesWriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle set out to make a different kind of zombie movie, and in some ways succeeded: an argument can be made for this as one of the very first “fast zombie” movies, for one – before this, the Re-Animator movies and Return of the Living Dead seemed like outliers. The Infected aren’t interested in eating your guts or your brains. The Rage virus seems to be just that, a lot of people wandering around looking for people to hurt, to vomit blood on them and infect them. Even when they’re set on fire they don’t slow down. Ebola was used as a basis for the virus’ spread, but Ebola isn’t terribly successful as a virus: it tends to kill its victim before they can spread the disease. Rage is much more successful in that respect. Major West keeps one of his troops who got infected chained in a courtyard to a very grim purpose: he wants to find out how long it will take the Infected outside his walls to starve to death.

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For attempting to carve out a novel approach to the zombie picture, it’s surprising that 20 Day Later still pays tribute to them very openly. Though it’s not a zombie picture, Jim’s awakening in the hospital is straight out of Day of the Triffids. The movie manages to encapsulate all three of Romero’s classic Dead trilogy: the improvised strongholds from Night, the scavenging from deserted stores and not-so-deserted building next to a source of gasoline from Dawn (right down to the child zombie), and the last half of the picture is a more pastoral yet venal riff on Day, right down to its own version of Bub the zombie. Garland and Boyle are extremely open about this, and the approach is different enough to make it appreciative homage rather than naked appropriation. We’ve seen way too much of that.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

This is also one of the first feature films to be recorded digitally, which allowed Boyle to capture those eerie scenes of empty London far more quickly than using the standard film camera would have allowed (which probably made him very popular with the Police). That lends an intriguing look to the movie, especially where the Infected are concerned – their jittery movement caused by increasing the framerate in the camera. On film that would result in slow motion; in a digital camera, it seems to pull out frames.

So what you have here is a good-looking zombie movie with good actors and a good director, with a story that takes its characters through changes more complex than what’s on the inside suddenly coming outside. Yes, I should have gotten over myself in 2002 and watched it, but I am so much better equipped to appreciate it now, for what it is.

Good filmmaking.

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