Danny Boyle knows how to direct a thriller, no doubt about it. His introductory film, Shallow Grave, remains the single most malevolent film I’ve ever seen. There’s no other way I can think of to describe it, not even as a descent into madness. Boyle knows how to build tension and wring ever last drop of sweat out of his audience but far too frequently he’s undone by those very same talents.
As such, I think 28 Days Later is all the best and all the worst examples of his personal tics together in a single film.
The film opens with a group of animal rights activists trying to free some chimps from a research lab. A doctor catches them then freaks out when he sees what they’re doing. He warns them that the chimps are infected with rage and clearly the activists think that’s nothing more than a metaphor. They find out how wrong that assumption is about five seconds later then the film jumps to a hospital bed 28 days later.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) sits up in an empty hospital and finds himself very much alone in the greater London area. As he starts to put together the pieces he discovers the United Kingdom has been evacuated because of a virus. Then he goes to church and finds out that not everyone has left.
The “not-a-zombie” people in the film are genuinely frightening especially in the context of germ warfare. I say that knowing full well the film, despite the obviousness of the infection metaphor, is pretty much Boyle’s attempt to ramp up the zombie horror thriller and in that regard the film succeeds. It’s genuinely unsettling throughout and the digital video grainy aspect lends an extra layer of grit to the film.
I think Murphy is talented when it comes to being creepy but he’s sort of stranded here since he’s playing “normal.” Even the point where he would, one presumes, naturally excel late in the film feels like a cheat because I couldn’t see the character going all “Lord of the Flies” that quickly. Which brings me to the turning point of the film for me and for long time fans.
About an hour in, Jim’s crew arrives at a military base and this is the exact moment where the film tends to lose people. I can understand what Boyle was saying here, but it does feel wildly out of place. There is only one truly bad guy introduced here and he’s more of a right-hand man than the actual military leader (long-time Boyle pal Christopher Eccleston) who wants to do right by his men more than anything else.
The film maintains its intensity through to the very end, but this sequence feels more like a middle than an end, the coda not withstanding. On that note, I somewhat preferred the other ending that played theatrically (included on the disc) even if Boyle should have stopped it before his final shot.
I’m curious now about the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, to see what effects a larger budget and bigger explosions have on this story. The original film definitely is a good scare-fest, but those same scares are muted by that final hour and some poor character decisions.