The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh

From its first scene, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a film of extreme highs and extreme lows, often in very close proximity. With surprising swiftness, its characters travel from a wish-fulfillment shopping spree to a run-in with red-eyed zombies, and from a bucolic reverie to the loss of one of their own. Although it’s nearly two hours long, the film never really lets up, but that doesn’t stop it from including a few crucial character-building moments. As in much of Boyle’s work, this is humanity under the worst possible duress. (See: heroin addiction, poverty, being trapped under a boulder.) But it also retains a dark sense of humor and a sincere interest in human relationships as it explores life in England’s, nearly a month after its population is decimated by a zombie epidemic called the Rage virus.

The film follows a hardy group of survivors: Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Jim, who spent the titular period of time in a coma, is just as clueless as the audience, but quickly learns about the situation under Selena’s tutelage. After they meet Frank and Hannah, they reluctantly agree to drive toward Manchester, per the request of a mysterious radio message. Along the way, they gradually form a surrogate family – a notion literalized by the bittersweet image of four wild, uninfected horses running around a field. Emotional shorthand like this threatens to become cloying, but the actors are so good that they efface the screenplay’s rough patches. As important as the special effects and postapocalyptic environment may be, this is a film built on strong performances.

Alas, this also makes 28 Days Later an incredibly nerve-wracking film. The main characters are all so identifiable and lovable that it afflicts me with anxiety every time they step outside. Boyle does a good job of making the constant danger very palpable. Even though some zombie purists assert that the infected aren’t zombies, they fucking are, and their speed – scrambling and loping toward whatever or whoever they can destroy – perfectly suits this movie’s purposes. The tunnel scene, for example, is one of the movie’s most effective because of the zombies’ madly feral dash over the heaps of garbage; it drives home the humans’ complete vulnerability. So many have died already, including all the characters’ loved ones, that there’s no doubt about whether this is a life or death situation.

This unyielding suspense and emotional attachment combine to make an intelligent, self-aware rollercoaster of a movie. They also enable the film to makes its most profound statements. This is, after all, a film about surviving the most dire crisis imaginable – the end of civilization as we know it. Each character must determine his or her own priorities. The film doesn’t harp on this, but lets it evolve out of who the characters are: Jim, the newcomer, still holds vestiges of old world values like family and love; Selena, the jaded survivalist, both teaches and learns from him; Frank, selfless and gregarious, wants what’s best for the group (and especially his daughter); Hannah suffers from severe, ongoing PTSD and wants people around her to depend upon. Over the course of the film, they learn the price of having each other; they also come to enjoy simple, sensory pleasures – like, for example, raisins.

For these reasons, I find the film both thrilling and moving. I enjoy it in the same cathartic way that some people enjoy movies based on Nicholas Sparks books. Except 28 Days Later is much, much better. It’s also full of searing, sometimes prescient political commentary, whether about the government’s handling of the epidemic and its aftermath, or about the military compound where the film ends up in its third act. The treatment of Major West and his men, while still very dark, is slightly comedic; as played by Christopher Eccleston, West is a frazzled leader making promises he can’t keep and exercising his authority just to make sure he still has it.

The men, meanwhile, prove that even when civilization collapses, rape culture remains. Although only a few of the men are especially boorish and malicious, their self-aggrandizing machismo turns out to be more contagious than the Rage virus, and their behavior toward their guests is as much of a statement about the military mindset that the film needs to make. I’m consistently impressed by how well the film weaves together its tense, nonstop action and its many well-developed subtexts. It’s one of the most successful, insightful postapocalyptic films made of late and it still has time for one zombie attack set-piece after another.

Some other things I like about 28 Days Later: it’s integration of high-angle, surveillance-style cinematography with conventional shot/reverse shot patterns; its eclectic but never overbearing score; how it draws on Romero’s Living Dead movies and Matheson’s I Am Legend (as well as its film adaptations), but still marks out its own unique territory while saying “We are the real monsters” with more subtlety than Romero ever has; the fruitful invocation of haunted house movies during its climax; and, of course, the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

This film just preys so well on my fears and my loves. I can’t help but be strongly affected by it. As Jim wanders around an empty London, his surroundings reveal the panic that once consumed them; this is an apocalypse that feels believably lived-in. Boyle applies a certain strange realism to his zombie apocalypse, and maybe that’s what makes it so resonant. It’s a distinctly 21st century vision of horror. But it still hangs onto a little hope, billowing in the breeze. I’ll close on an optimistic note with a gratuitous picture of the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh

  1. Spot on analysis. This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen (duh), just because of that first scene. Though I’m sure if I lived in London, it would resonate more.

    • That is one aspect I didn’t get at: it’s very much a zombie movie about British national identity, intended to really strike British viewers. I would love to hear what a horror fan from across the pond thought of it. Alas, all I’ve got is our visceral, nonlocalized terror.

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