28 Days Later

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later seems to have a lot on its mind — it was originally released (in Britain) right when SARS reared its ugly head — and that’s part of what’s wrong with it. It feels too now, too ripped-from-the-headlines, to pass muster as an enduring work of horror. And it moves not unlike one of the shambling, flesh-eating zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. The comparison is apt: In terms of narrative beats, 28 Days Later is like Romero’s Dead trilogy compacted into a slim omnibus, though the boogeymen here are not strictly “zombies” — they’re alive, but infected with a virus identified only as “rage.” Screenwriter Alex Garland probably intends you to complete the quote with “against the dying of the light” — this reflective, post-millennial creepshow takes time to stop and sniff the corpses. Rage does seem to be all the rage lately — exhibit A would be Hulk, not to mention X2‘s most popular character, the berserker Wolverine — but the rage here is as impersonal and unmotivated as a tornado. Rage without meaning, as a dramatic trigger, is a bit of a cop-out in times of painfully meaningful rage.

In any event, after a genuinely eerie prologue — rage-infected lab monkeys (who’ve been fed large doses of televised newsreel violence in addition to whatever they’ve been dosed with; the Ludivico Technique in reverse, I guess) contaminate a group of animal-rights activists who’d hoped to liberate them — we settle into the post-apocalypse. Head-wounded bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in hospital to find he has the place, and most of London, all to himself. After much wandering about on deserted streets (shades of Abre los Ojos and its American remake Vanilla Sky) and many echoing, unanswered shouts of “Hellooooo,” Jim encounters a hard-boiled survivor couple: Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who save Jim’s life and waste no time filling him in on the backstory of the catastrophe, in the jaded, this-is-how-it-is-kiddo tone familiar from movies like this.

More wandering about leads them to a father-daughter pair, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns). And after yet more wandering about — I’m being intentionally vague here, and also intentionally repetitive; the film’s midsection is surprisingly slack and dull, interrupted on occasion by grainy, incomprehensible spasms of violence whenever an “infected” shows up — the survivors run across a band of military men, headed by the sinister Major West (Christopher Eccleston). Like Whitney Houston, Major West believes that children are our future, though in a slightly different context. His idea is to put Selena and the underage Hannah in foxy dresses and leave them to the tender mercies of his crude, priapic soldiers. Spread your legs or else mankind will die out — boy, guys will say anything to get some nookie.

Like The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later will likely spook only the dabblers in the horror genre — the Saturday-night crowd of twentysomethings who go see it because the commercials on MTV look hip and edgy, but who haven’t seen the many films from which it “borrows.” Horror fans will yawn and check off the influences not only of Romero’s Dead trilogy but also his lesser-known The Crazies, and the premise of mindless automatons driven by single-minded antisocial urges was handled more effectively — and humorously — in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid almost thirty years ago.

The leads, except for the amiable Brendan Gleeson as a daddy trying to make the best of it for his little girl, are uniformly exhausted and one-note, without much personality connecting them to their pre-plague selves. The main heroine, Selena, has been made a strong, proud black woman (Pam Grier would’ve done it up with more sex and sass back in the day), perhaps to sidestep charges of racism. The military boys have captured an “infected” for research — too bad this plot angle has none of the pathos and wit of the similar storyline in Romero’s Day of the Dead, wherein a zombie named Bub was tentatively, movingly socialized — and the “infected,” a bug-eyed black man who thrashes and howls on the end of a chain, is an image to warm the icy hearts of white supremacists everywhere.

Indeed, I wonder how much of 28 Days Later — which, like 12 Monkeys, posits an apocalypse wrought by misguided activists — is really a right-wing paranoid fantasy in disguise. Horror movies, which often speak dark and disquieting truths, don’t have to be “politically correct” — they’re sometimes more potent if they toss politics out the window altogether — but what are we to make of this bitter vision of a future blighted by dissenters? Despite the nihilistic surface of most of his films (especially Trainspotting), Danny Boyle is a moralist by nature, and the moral here appears to be that the angry masses are not to be understood or reasoned with, but to be hacked down in their rows. An unmistakable — probably unacknowledged — strain of colonialist ruthlessness runs through this dystopian nightmare.

The survivors, a nuclear family of sorts, turn their gaze to the skies at the end, and the balance of order is restored. The image is of a military plane — British? American? — and you can’t help thinking that the bracingly pessimistic Romero might have had the plane unload a few rounds of napalm on the happy survivors, or, at least, a few daisy-cutters.

For all its grit and gore, 28 Days Later is every bit as much a reactionary, establishmentarian work as the horror movies of fifty years ago. It congratulates its heroes on their willingness to butcher both strangers and dear friends at a moment’s notice (when infection takes hold of someone, you have about twenty seconds to dispatch him), and rewards them with a hopeful ending. It was a hit in America; what that says about the national mood of fear-based hostility is considerably more frightening than anything in this rather feeble and derivative film.

Explore posts in the same categories: horror, overrated

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