(Updated! Now with 20% fewer potentially offensive overly broad generalizations! Ah, you’ll see what I mean.)
(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.)
Okay, folks, here’s the deal. It’d be too damn tough to talk about what needs to be talked about when discussing this film while avoiding certain give-away’d plot points, so I’m not going to bother. If you’ve already seen the movie, or you don’t care about having stuff spoiled for you, knock yourself out, okay? Okay. (I will say that I don’t QUITE fully give away any of the big surprises, except one of them, and that’s at the veeeerrry end of the review. But still, caveat lector. Or in other words, SPOILER ALERT!!!)
I’m a big fan of director Danny Boyle’s first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. The former is a supertaut thriller, the kind of thing Hitchock might do if he had the sensibilities of a 90s filmmaker. With little more to work with than three characters and their own paranoia, Boyle built a sense of mounting madness and violence that demonstrated he’d have a deft hand if he were to try his hand at horror proper. Trainspotting showed more of the same, with its nightmarish moments (the heroin-withdrawl scene, particularly) giving lie to the “salute” to the junkie techno lifestyle that a lot of hipsters I went to college with seemed to think the movie offered. Though I skipped seeing A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, following rules I have about the proper response to movies involving Cameron Diaz or Leo DiCaprio, I was certainly excited to find out that Boyle was going to be doing a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, because folks, I don’t know if you know this about me, but if there’s one thing I love it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.
Like most good recent horror films, 28 Days Later is as memorable for its allusions to past genre masterpieces as it is for what it achieves on its own. There’s a scene in an abandoned supermarket that’s straight out of George Romero’s anti-consumerist zombie fable Dawn of the Dead, there’s a military-dinner-amid-the-savages scene straight out of Apocalypse Now Redux, a hand-to-hand combat murder straight out of Midnight Express; moreover the overall feel of the film, from its grainy appearance (courtesy of digital video, as opposed to, say, the 16mm on which genre classics like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were shot, or the beat-up rented videocasette copies we grew up watching them on) to the characters’ haircuts to the fact that it’s set in Great Britain (a country that for all intents and purposes is perpetually reliving 1977), is a throwback to the bleak horror films of three decades ago.
But then there’s the innovations. If 28 Days Later’s only claim to fame was the fact that it had zombies that moved fast, it would still go down in zombie-flick history as a true pioneer. MAN, those fast-moving zombies! Technically, though, they aren’t zombies at all, but zombified living humans who’ve been infected with a nebulously defined chimpanzee disease that turns them into mindless red-irised killing machines so fixated on slaughter that they don’t even bother to stop and eat their victims. (That’s right, it’s a zombie movie with no real cannibalism–innovation number 2!) Boyle films the lightning-fast zombies at odd angles and with choppy editing that only enhances their mercurial menace. The result is the kind of fast pace that modern audiences require, meaning that 28 Days Later isn’t just a valuable addition to the horror canon, but perhaps a vital one.
And there’s the stunning use of soundtrack. It just wouldn’t be a British Post-Apocalypse without Brian Eno, and his “An Ending (Ascent),” used with devastating emotional effect at the end of Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic, is employed with equal aplomb here. There’s also a memorably haunting “Ave Maria,” a bit of rambly Britpop in the shopping-cart scene, and tons and tons of Godspeed You Black Emperor*, which in terms of eeriness is a good thing indeed.
None of this would matter, of course, if you didn’t care about the characters, but the foursome that comprise the film’s band of protagonists (tough survivor Selena, ectomorphic bike messenger Jim (What is it with all these malnourished British actors, anyway? Damn, Danny, hire a freaking craft services department already!), good-humored cab driver Frank and quiet, thoughtful teenager Hannah) are almost instantly (and non-manipulatively) likeable. I found myself favorably comparing the bunch to the four characters at the center of Ang Lee’s Hulk film, who despite about two hours of in-depth psychological investigation and backstory muster hardly a whiff of empathy from the audience. (Would you have cared for a second if the Hulk had wiped out the entire remainder of the cast?)
Basically, I loved this movie. This is not to say, however, that many aspects of it, particularly in the film’s final third, weren’t actually kind of easy to predict, provided you had an extensive enough background in the Post-Apocalyptic Arts. Some lessons, if I may be so bold:
1) In terms of faint military radio broadcasts audible on your hand-wound AM receiver, repeated use in the broadcast of the word “salvation” is roughly equivalent to saying “we have gone Colonel Kurtz and are setting up rape camps and impaling heads on sticks as we speak.”
2) In the world of post-apocalyptic fiction, anyone who knew how to use a gun before the apocalypse is going to be a bad guy after the apocalypse. The bad-guy quotient increases geometrically if said individual learned to use guns while in some form of uniformed service. (Exceptions to the bad-guy gun rule are made for quiet, steely loners from rural areas who learned to shoot by picking rusty cans off a tree stump.) Please see Kathy Bates’s last stand in the TV minseries version of The Stand for more information.
3) Strangelove’s Law: Any time you’re in a group of people in which females are greatly outnumbered by males, things are going to get unpleasant. Likelihood of unpleasantness increases proportinately to the amount of males in said group to whom the Bad-Guy Gun rule is applicable.
4) Bad things will always happen in churches in the post-apocalypse, because zombies, much like filmmakers, can’t resist symbolism.
5) Strider’s Axiom: When attempting to hide from relentless undead killing machines, do not light fires.
6) If you are one half of an attractive mixed-sex pair making your way through the post-apocalyptic world, you will fall in love and fuck. Ridiculing the notion that, as one half of an attractive mixed-sex pair making your way through the post-apocalyptic world, you will fall in love and fuck, does not prevent this from occurring.
7) A virus with a window of “10-20 seconds” between exposure and mindless raving zombiehood greatly reduces the likelihood of said virus spreading off the island of Great Britain and to “Paris and New York.” If a zombie got on a plane, that plane’d be a debris slick inside of two minutes, and it also seems safe to assume that a boat full of zombies would be fairly easy to see coming. Really the only way the virus could spread would be through the Chunnel, and do you honestly think that France would be welcoming fleeing Britons with open arms? Please. Chirac would be manning the barricades himself to keep them out if he had to, swinging a baguette and waving a TotalFinaElf flag.
8) This isn’t a Post-Apocalyptic Arts lesson so much as it’s a Film Stuides Lesson: Anyone who refers to any movie of any genre as “a genre-busting vision” is an asshole who doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. If a movie of a particular genre is good, it hasn’t “busted” the genre or “transcended” the genre or any other dopey pseudoeducated cliche–it IS the genre, insofar as it’s the best the genre has to offer. So please, horror film snobs, sick that in your pipe made out of a severed human head and smoke it.
(I’m a little defensive about horror films, in case you hadn’t noticed.)
That said, our foursome’s protracted run-in with the military hits the usual notes of “it’s not the zombies who are the worst thing imaginable, it’s selfish greedy establishment types.” Not a bad lesson, even if it’s one taught (with a great deal of last-minute expectation-reversing panache) by Night of the Living Dead and countless other horror films. Still, they do it well here, throwing in a Deliverance-esque transformation from mild-mannered “this can’t be happening” type to stone-cold killer to boot. Also, when was the last time you saw a zombie movie in which the main characters’ survival hinged on one of them breaking into someplace, as opposed to keeping the zombie out? (Innovation #3!) And it’s also worth noting that, particularly during the final chase through the military’s compound, it appears that the zombies have no heightened sense of hearing, smell, or miscellaneous ability to “sense” living humans nearby–they’ve got to find them the old-fashioned human way, i.e. with the five senses the good Lord gave ‘em. Innovation #4!
Back to the military aspect: Much of the success of this final section of the film owes to the strength of actor Christopher Eccleston’s performance. It’s one of the strongest in the film (along with the almost painfully sympathetic Frank, played by Brendan Gleeson). Eccleston, who portrays the ranking officer in the military unit that takes our heroes in, was the pivotal character in Boyle’s Shallow Grave. His performance in that film was rivetingly Gollum-esque, a chillingly grotesque demonstration of the outcome of keeping secrets. Here, though, he’s a model of reserve and polish. Far from “going native,” Eccleston’s Major acts as officers are supposed to act–sacrificing everything, even, perhaps, his own morality, for what he honestly believes to be the good of his men. It’s knowing that the Major, at heart, just might not be such a bad person that makes him so effective as a villain.
It should also be added that what might seem like yet another throwback to the liberal 1970s horror cycle–making the military the ultimate bad guys–has much of its P.C. aura deflated by the fact that the plague was unleashed by a bunch of do-gooding animal rights activists, who free a test chimp despite being told by one of the project’s scientists, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, that the monkey is infected with a lethal disease. In all fairness to the PETA goon squad, though, I think I too might be a bit skeptical if told that a chimp was infected with “rage.”
Actually, calling the chimp’s disease “rage,” as opposed to inventing some wonky faux-scientific explanation, made the film that much more effective for me. Citing emotion instead of bacteria as the source of apocalypse heightens our awareness that a moral law has been breached, not just some E.U. testing ban. And the film’s opening section, in which a chimp is forced, a la Axl Rose in the video for “Welcome to the Jungle,” to watch countless looped clips of horrific mob violence the world over added a chilling tone to the proceedings that folks of all political leanings could appreciate.
And speaking of politics, though it’s kind of sad that that’s what this is reduced to at this point, there’s a scen towards the beginning of the film in which Jim finds a kiosk covered with xeroxed “missing” posters made by families trying desperately to find lost loved ones in a country increasingly ravaged by the zombie infection. It spoke more directly to the chaos of confusion, pain, and loss in New York City after 9/11 than just about any work of art I’ve seen since the attacks occurred.
There are a few little plot flaws I’ll note briefly:
1) I understand that the army guys waited as long as they did to make their presence known to our foursome in order to establish that said foursome was harmless, and in so doing inadvertantly ensured that said foursome was reduced to a threesome. But given what we later learn of their motives, why not cut said foursome down to the appropriate twosome and be done with it?
2) C’mon–surely SOME radio and TV signals are still floating around Great Britain post-apocalypse, especially given what we come to learn about the worldwide situation by film’s end?
3) If the British government and/or military were faced with the kind of the decision the rest of the world apparently made about the UK, wouldn’t nuclear blackmail start looking like a good idea?
Aaaaallllll that being said, I’m concerned that my relatively flippant tone indicates that I thought this movie was “a roller-coaster ride” or “a popcorn-guzzling theme park attraction” or something else that people say about 2 Fast 2 Furious. It isn’t. It’s dark, dark, dark–it’s one of those movies that grabs the audience around the neck and forces them to watch unpleasant, horrible things happen to good, decent people. It’s a nastiness that the dopier aspects of the action-packed climax, or even the happy ending (for which I was unspeakably grateful, especially after the filmmakers naughtily teased us with several possible bad-ending red herrings, including one that was once again awfully close to Night of the Living Dead), can offset. It’s the kind of nastiness that makes for great horror.
Oh yeah, that’s right–it’s a zombie movie with a happy ending. Innovation Number Five!
* Political digression that might irritate you so please stop reading if you think it will because I want you to like this review of this movie, honest I do: Godspeed You Black Emperor and I have sort of had a falling out, after they titled the first huge song on their latest album, Yanqui U.X.O., “9-15-00,” in “honor” of the start date for the most recent (and most appallingly, senselessly violent) Palestinian intifada. To me, this is a bit like there being a group of people in the world of the film who are militantly pro-zombie. (Update: No, I don’t mean that all Palestinians are zombielike–just the suicide belt brigade and the “not one Jew left” crew. I’m not an asshole, honest!) It was a weird bit of cognitive dissonance only enhanced by the fact that once I left the Union Square theatre in which I saw the film, there was a “Free Palestine” demonstration going on in Union Square, in which folks played hackey-sack and danced around and waved signs and did other things that, of course, they’d never be able to do if they lived in a country run by Islamic Jihad. But hey, back to the light-hearted stuff, like killer zombie movies!
Sean T. Collins is dead–he’s allll messed up. He blogs at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat, where this post originally appeared.