Combine two different plot setups, create a new twist on an old genre. In retrospect it seems obvious, though I don’t know for certain if there are examples of this particular combination before this 2002 film from Danny Boyle. On the one hand, 28 Days Later… is a zombie survival film. On the other hand, the zombies in this case aren’t true undead; not raised by magic or even unknown means, but are instead living people who are infected by a terrible plague. This plague, the “Rage virus”, is an artificially created infection which is let loose after a group of activists destroy a laboratory experimenting on primates; we know what the activists are doing there, but we’re never told just what the lab is doing with the virus, although a scientist speaks of trying to find a cure. Perhaps it’s something they’ve weaponized, or perhaps it’s something they’ve stumbled across but was previously isolated.
Either way, the result is the same. This contagion, which spreads through saliva or blood, soon spreads throughout Great Britain — and, it is rumored, the world. With an infection time that can be measured in seconds, it rapidly wipes out most of the population. Jim (Cillian Murphy) is an ordinary man who wakes up from a coma in the hospital only to find that he is a man virtually alone in a city of the dead.
I’m an American, but I’m 93% certain this isn’t normal for London.
Jim eventually finds a few other survivors: the gruff Selena (Naomie Harris) and the friendly Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hanna (Megan Burns). The four attempt to leave the dangers of the city to find some sort of sanctuary away from the infected. As with the classic Night of the Living Dead, or the later Zombieland, the focus on a small group with distinct personalities does a lot to humanize the film. The audience quickly learns to care for these characters, and because of this the film is more than just a violent scare-fest.
The film does have its scares, of course. In a way, the Rage virus is more frightening than a traditional zombie apocalypse. One doesn’t have to worry about the dead, but the living… including those that one is fighting alongside. Certainly infectious plague zombies have been done before; I remember the rule about “if you’re bitten by a zombie, you become one” being known even on the playground in the 80s. But the Rage virus is more frightening because not only can it also be spread by a blood splatter landing in a vulnerable place, but it also acts quickly. There are no heroic walks into oblivion, taking down other zombies before one turns in this film; infection takes hold in seconds, leaving just barely enough time for one’s friends to finish an infected person off before they become a danger. It drives home not just the horror of being hunted, but the body horror of disease that is common to “outbreak” films (such as Contagion or, well, Outbreak) but less common in typical zombie apocalypse films.
The film does have one notable flaw, though, and that is its use of shaky cam when an infected attacks. As usual, it appears to be intended to raise the excitement level and the fright level; also as usual, it fails at this and instead just makes it hard to figure out what’s going on until after it’s happened. Just have the cameraman hold it steady, if you would, Mr. Boyle.
That flaw aside, 28 Days Later… is a smarter film than most of its genre, with characters that a person can care about and a bit of thoughtfulness peppered in here and there.