“There’s no future in England’s dreaming!” Shouting these words in 1977, the Sex Pistols declared a revolution against hundreds of years of British culture. “God Save the Queen” threw a rock at the United Kingdom and its monarchy, smashing up the system with tremendous glee.
Soundtracking massive protests and accompanied by dramatic poses, the song made it feel like suddenly nothing was sacred anymore. Out with the old, in with the new
25 years later, in 2002, a cinematic equivalent to the atomic bomb that was punk-rock came out of England. This movie, an uncommonly breakneck zombie thriller, rewrote entire genres and challenged perceptions about what a zombie movie could accomplish.
28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle (Sunshine) and written by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), asks the same question Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols did all those years earlier: what will become of this little island when all its myths are gone?
Now streaming on HBO Max, 28 Days Later opens as well-meaning animal activists liberate lab-experiment chimps that a woebegotten scientist has infected with what he calls “rage.”
“In order to cure, you must first understand,” he says, trying to justify the experiments, but that’s not enough for the trio. They’re very quickly attacked by a chimp, whose compatriots applaud as it’s made clear they’ve become infected monsters. With only the briefest of set-ups, the movie cuts to its title card. The viewer, it correctly assumes, can fill in the rest.
The movie fades in Jim (Cillian Murphy), who awakens in the hospital. He wanders around naked for a moment before finding a hospital gown to wear, and then tries to find somebody, anybody. He seems to be the only person around, which is an odd situation in London.
Jim essentially gives a walking tour of London in these early scenes, which showcase Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, and other attractions. At one point, he stumbles through a pile of miniature Big Bens, as well as an overturned double decker bus. There’s a dreadful isolation to these scenes, which have the feel of a Twilight Zone episode.
Filming these scenes was an accomplishment in its own right. Modern viewers might note what feels like poor picture quality in 28 Days Later, even by the standards of the time; that’s because Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle used eight MiniDV cameras, handheld camcorders that allowed the movie to get in and out of locations in under an hour, as police at the borders of the 4 a.m. set held back early, angry commuters.
“It was very difficult because we had to deal with Walkie-Talkies, screaming commuters just out of frame, police asking when we'd finish, and six or eight people operating cameras,” Dod Mantle recalled to American Cinematographer earlier this year. “It was hell.”
Not that it was much easier for the characters. After stumbling through a church, where it is written that “the end is extremely fucking nigh,” Jim escapes a horrifically infected priest and eventually finds Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) throwing Molotov cocktails from their hideout in a convenience store. Surviving only on sugary sweets, the two explain what’s happened to the world.
Jim demands to find out what happened to his parents, and it’s about as good an outcome as one could expect: they took their own lives while at home in bed, clutching a picture of a young Jim. His grief isn’t met with much sympathy by Selena, who soon has to murder Mark the instant he gets infected. Dying isn’t necessary for a zombie transformation in 28 Days Later; even the tiniest drop of blood will infect within 20 seconds.
On their own, Jim and Selena encounter yet another London staple: a cab driver (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The two have been eking out a life post-apocalypse in their flat, but with Jim and Selena arriving they decide to follow the call of a radio transmission promising salvation in Manchester.
When screenwriter Alex Garland was a kid, he loved George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But that movie wasn’t what helped him come up with his monstrous creatures. That inspiration came from the original Resident Evil game, which came out in 1996: “I remember playing Resident Evil, having not really encountered zombies for quite a while, and thinking: oh, my god, I love zombies! I'd forgotten how much I love zombies. These are awesome!,” he told Huffington Post in 2015.
Boyle knew considerably less. Speaking to PeopleTV in 2019, he confirmed that the decision to make fast zombies came from them needing to be “really scary.” He added that “they can’t just stumble around going ‘argh’, ‘cause otherwise you’d just walk away from them.” Recruiting retired athletes as extras, the infected of 28 Days Later feel overwhelming and inescapable. They’re always right behind you and gaining.
Once the foursome finally get to Manchester, they encounter something unexpected: the military, in the form of Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). Their troubles are far from over. When asked by Filmmaker if he considers 28 Days Later to be more of a zombie movie or an apocalypse movie, Boyle answered the latter. While the zombies provide the scares, the third act of the movie asks existential questions about what a sustainable future could look like.
At the time of the film’s release, it was easy for post-9/11 viewers to relate to the trauma of a civilization crumbling. Approaching its 20th anniversary amid a pandemic that has proven as transmissible as any science fiction plague, 28 Days Later is still as relevant as ever.
28 Days Later is now streaming on HBO Max.