Despite the protestations of the director, 28 Days Later is quite clearly a zombie film through and through. Man playing God leading to misery? Check! Sharp bursts of sudden violence? Check! Man being the real enemy? Check! Sure, the film does attempt to modernise the genre (is this the first sighting of the fast zombie?) but at its core it harks back to Night of the Living Dead – a small band of survivors try to make their way through a changed world before confronting the real enemy.
Like Night of the Living Dead there’s also the barest bones of a social commentary underlying the whole film, here what makes an act of violence justified? The zombies (I’m not going to use the word infected, it’s quite clear what they are) are not driven by a need to feed (indeed, one character comments that he now knows that all he has to do is out last them until they starve) but by an uncontrollable need for violence. It’s shocking, but the most affecting scenes of violence are the (fictional) news broadcasts being drip fed to the monkey at the beginning (a sly poke at A Clockwork Orange) rather than the more savage attacks during the rest of the film. Where Romero introduced the world to scenes of the dead feasting on their victims, Boyle instead almost invents the hand held, quick cut scare attack – when viewed from a clinical perspective the film isn’t that violent, but the manner in which it is shot heightens the impact of each and every blow.
Another interesting aspect of the film was that it was one of the first to champion the merits of digital cameras, arguing that their relative small size allowed the viewer to get closer to the action. Digital cameras have revolutionized film-making, reducing the need for expensive film but (for me at least) at the loss of some of the artistry that film allows. Ten years later digital cameras have a high enough pixel count to mean that there use is no longer noticeable, but at the time the effect was similar to seeing older 16mm footage blown up to 35mm, grainy and prone to motion blur. Rather than slow down the action (as many other directors experimenting at the time did), Boyle used these limitations to deepen his vision of hell in the British landscape, giving the film a low tech, gritty feel more in keeping with older zombie films. For all of his denial, Boyle sure knew a lot about how to make a zombie film.
It’s also a curiously British film. The lack of access to firearms in this country slows down the carnage compared to other zombie films, this is a creeping insidious threat rather than strength of numbers. All of the attacks are up close and personnel, and the nature of the pathogen increases the risk for all involved. This version of the zombie apocalypse would not work in any other country, it needs the small island approach, the creeping green countryside and – most crucially – the underlying respect most have for the armed forces. It’s only because we respect them and expect them to protect us that that the true villains of the film take on such a chilling tone. “I promised them women” may well be the most chilling line of the decade, the (new) gentry controlling his ravaging horde by promising them that they can act however they like. Ecclestone’s Major West is that most Hollywood of creations, the educated Brit, but the crux here is that he isn’t planning world domination, but survival. Like “A Boy and his Dog”, the film questions what people would be willing to do to ensure the survival of the human race (or in this case, Britain). Ecclestone has an answer, it just isn’t palatable.
Like all good horror films, everybody plays it straight (and unlike many, there’s no bleak humour to leaven the ordeal). Cillian Murphy has a rare turn as a non-psychopath, using his gangly frame to inhabit an ordinary man rather than a born leader (indeed, for much of the film he is asking everyone else what he should do). Naomi Harris is wonderful (as always) as the girl who doesn’t need saving (another genre trope, horror is very equal opportunity), and Brendan Gleason is his usual self – as ever he delivers a performance that just feels like a member of your family (which makes his inevitable death even more shocking). Even the smallest of roles feel rounded out, although this is a film that is sparsely populated even for horror standards.
Even without all of this (and like many of the other films on the list, it’s a film that I think is wonderful but also acknowledge isn’t the easiest film to watch) it would make the list for introducing me to the wonders of Godspeed You Black Emperor! (the exclamation mark is known to change places). Boyle’s canny ear for music is once again superb, as one of the best music collections is once again dragged out to find the perfect song for the moment. There’s the impression that Boyle is possibly the only director who could give Scorcese a run for his money when comparing record collections.