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film Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”

A Zombie Film that Still Speaks to Our Current World, and with Quite a Bit of Class

"28 Days Later" Classic Danny Boyle Zombie Horror Film Starring Cillian Murphy,Film Poster "28 Days Later"

With Christopher Nolan’s biopic, Oppenheimer, racking up astronomical numbers surpassing $850 million in global box office receipts, Cillian Murphy has emerged as a front-runner for next year’s Best Actor Oscar. The lead role of J. Robert Oppenheimer was a perfect fit for an actor of Murphy’s approach and talents, earning him extensive praise for his preparation, dedication and sacrifice.

Beyond the wide acclaim, Murphy’s stirring portrayal of the film’s titular character has even been cited for reshaping the film’s score. It’s a performance that has cemented his reputation as being among today’s most talented actors. His increased renown, however, has also attracted some unwanted attention, as illustrated by the unauthorized use of footage from Peaky Blinders in the DeSantis campaign’s desperate attempts to divert attention from a collapse that has been in “Florida man...” freefall since his anger-fueled presidential bid was launched on Twitter.

Speaking of visceral emotions and uncontrollable anger, we are reminded of the impressive performance Murphy turned in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. In his role as a disoriented survivor turned hero named Jim who struggles to live through the effects of an epidemic called “rage,” the minimalist dialogue, complimented with smoldering emotion distinguished his role from the more one-dimensional portrayals seen in similar movies. Boyle’s direction is further bolstered by a taut screenplay written by Alex Garland, whose previous credits include The Beach (novel, 1997; film 2000), Sunshine (2007), also directed by Boyle and starring Murphy, and Ex Machina (2014).

The infected in 28 Days Later are distinguished from the menacing but slow-moving dead typical to most zombie flicks in their framing a deceptively complex narrative that addresses a range of profound social issues. The film’s categorization as ‘horror’ has led to its complexity and seriousness being overlooked by those with an aversion to films of this genre and the audiences they attract. Its embrace by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films and selection for a Fangoria Chainsaw Award also reinforce this marginalized designation, while recognition on numerous ‘best of’ lists of zombie films distant it further from the realm of ‘serious’ filmmaking for aficionados who tend to look down their noses at genre cinema.

Critics have noted the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences’ long-established tendency to disregard this popular creative form, with some dismissing it as ‘low brow’ and just plain gross. Such viewers are unable to embrace Noël Carroll's aesthetic appreciation of horror’s attraction rooted in “fascination with the categorically transgressive beings that star in the genre.” Scorn of this nature extends especially to films that exploit the ambiguity between camp and disgust inherent to classic monster figures [Can somebody give me a handclap for Max SchreckBrigette HelmLon Chaney, Sr.Bela Lugosi (thanks Bauhaus!), Fredric MarchBoris KarloffElsa LancasterLon Chaney, Jr.Simone SimonBenjamin F. Chapman Jr.Maila Nurmi, aka ‘Vampira,’ and Sheila Vand?].

Amidst such a fraught and ambiguous aesthetic landscape, it is useful to reflect on the values, meanings and knowledge evoked by the horror label. Before delving into these complexities, however, it’s necessary to first define the parameters of the form itself, considering how films with similarly terrifying themes often get differentiated between the categories of horror and something else. This broader question parallels the way ‘classic’ films are seen as transcending genre categories in much the same way certain literary works enter that reified realm of the “literary canon.”

The (In)visible Horror of Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer centers on one of the most horrifying themes of modern human experience: nuclear war. It joins a long list of films addressing the existential dread provoked by the potential use of atomic and nuclear weapons, particularly against the United States. The chilling nature of this threat was transformed from one of shock and awe at the devastation wrought against Japan to a distressingly realistic possibility of our own victimization with the Soviet Union’s first successful atomic bomb test in August of 1949. This development has fueled a Cold War legacy that humanity has been living with since.

The narrative heart of Oppenheimer focuses on the creation of the atomic bomb, culminating in the horrific obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These attacks resulted in the almost immediate deaths of over 100,000 people, incinerating most instantaneously, with hundreds of thousands more succumbing to radioactive fallout. While this appalling brutality is certainly horrific, narratives that depict this event are not typically categorized as horror in cinema or literature.

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is one film that challenges the absurd distinction that places historical figures responsible for atrocities above the monstrous lot of horror villains. The film features a deranged Brigadier General brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden with the slasher-inspired name of Jack D. Ripper. The connection Kubrick’s move exposes is even more provocative when we recall the moral context that frames many of the prime figures of the slasher genre, from Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger to Clive Barker’s Pinhead (not the Ramones’) and Hideo Nakata’s Sadako Yamamura.

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In Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw, expert horrorologist Jade Daniels highlights the complex moral landscape in which these figures operate to right the “unfairness” that drives many slasher narratives. In the first of her “Slasher 101” entries, she writes, “years ago there was some prank or crime that hurt someone and then the slasher comes back to dispense his violent brand of justice.” Can we get another handclap for Gunnar HansenEllen SandweissNick CastleSteven DashRichard BrookerKane HodderTony ToddDoug BradleyRobert EnglundNatasha Henstridge and Rie Inō?

The significant amount of screentime dedicated to the framing narrative focused on the animosity Lewis Strauss harbored for Oppenheimer is one of the features distinguishing Nolan’s offering from the archive of nuclear war films. This distinction is further emphasized through the narrative pivot that occurs in the scenes taking place in the aftermath of the bombs’ use. This move shifts our attention to a narrative thread concentrated on the ill treatment Oppenheimer was subjected to in a post-war America caught in the grip of a military industrial complex leveraging Cold War fears and the hysteria of McCarthyism.

Oppenheimer, thus, proposes that the wider horror of its story lies not just in the bombs themselves, but in those people who would use them for their own selfish ends. As Arthur Miller depicted in The Crucible, such are the people who are willing to destroy anyone around them to satisfy their own thirst for power.

Dystopian Inspirations and 28 Days Later

In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the key event centers on the outbreak of a highly contagious virus called “rage”—a theme made more chilling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 28 Days Later further exploits fears around corrupt or evil institutions that operate with little concern for the public’s well-being through a bio-engineered virus released from the “Cambridge Primate Research Centre,”—an vivisection or animal testing laboratory much like the one depicted in Richard Adams’ novel (and animated filmThe Plague Dogs.

Although the outbreak itself is caused by the recklessness of some well-meaning animal rights activists, the warning of the lab scientist, who stands as a representation of knowledge and progress associated with elite research institutions, is telling. As the activists enter, he anxiously informs them that the chimpanzees are “infected” and “highly contagious,” reflecting the sense of hubris and superiority inherent to Western culture’s relationship with the natural world. He goes on to declare with unintended irony, “in order to cure. You must understand.”

The caged and tormented chimps that the activists have broken into the lab to free have been subjected to a litany of cruel medical experimentation and psychological manipulation that belies the research centre’s purportedly humane mission. The chimps are bound before a bank of monitors that bombard them with violent images reminiscent of the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as the Ludovico technique of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange—immortalized in the scene in which Malcolm McDowell is forced to watch a litany of violent images while his eyes are held open by a draconian medical device in Kubrick’s adaptation.

When an activist releases the first chimp from its cage it immediately attacks them, resulting in the swift infection of all present. This results in a convulsive transformation rendering them as monstrous beings whose only will is to acts of murderous violence reflecting the basest, most vicious aspects of humanity. Like many historical disasters, this too, is self-inflicted.

The film’s place within the horror genre primarily arises from its portrayal of a disease that drives the infected to an even more extreme form of “ultraviolence” than Burgess envisioned, while also exceeding that depicted in much dystopian fiction. This shift in focus from the disease itself distinguishes 28 Days Later from other films on the epidemic theme.

Notwithstanding its unique take on the expression of symptoms that render the zombiefied infected as inhumane, and thus, monstrous, Boyle’s film joins a narrative tradition that explores human reactions to the psychological strain and collective terror of this driver of mass death. While Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague, 1947) provides one the most celebrated treatments of this theme, numerous filmmakers have produced movies that evocatively convey the terrifying effects of epidemics. Notable examples include Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), films based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, which also inspired Francis Lawrence’s 2007 adaptation, along with Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), which Michael Creighton adapted from his 1969 novel of the same name.

These are joined by Ingmar Bergman’s superb meditation on the Black Death in The Seventh Seal (1957), along with George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), Felipe Cazals’ El año de la peste (The Year of the Plague, 1979, with a screenplay adapted from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year by Juan Arturo Brennan and Gabriel García Márquez), Lars von Trier’s Epidemic (1987), Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), Juame Balagueró’s and Paco Plaza’s [REC] (2007) and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011).

Beyond the Veil of the Zombie Epidemic

Like many films in the horror genre, 28 Days Later conveys a potent message through a compelling story with wide popular appeal. Delivering a biting social commentary that emerges behind the cover of its jump scares, it’s a film that levels a forceful denunciation of toxic masculinity and authoritarianism—concerns of urgent relevance in a world of increasing political oppression and nationalistic fervor. Boyle sets the stage for this critique through the presence of two strong, diverse female characters, Selena and Hannah, played by Naomie Harris and Megan Burns, respectively, who are among two pairs of survivors Jim initially joins up with.

Harris’ commanding performance as Selena adeptly projects the persona of a strong Black woman to serve as a foil to a timid and quiet Jim. Harris, along with Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil, cast a new mold for the kind of tough and resilient female characters that would become common to the zombie genre most prominently through AMC’s The Walking Dead, featuring a host of examples from Carol, Maggie, Michonne, Sasha, Rosita, Enid and Judith, to Jadis and Alpha.

Selena also represents the most well-adjusted survivor to the apocalyptic scenario depicted in 28 Days Later. Boyle emphasizes her character’s toughness soon after her introduction in a harrowing scene whereby she is forced to kill her partner, Mark, when he becomes infected. This occurs just after they assist Jim in escaping a mob of infected after having sought refuge in a church where a message scrawled on the wall warns of the perils to come: “Repent The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.”

Defending her actions to a stunned Jim, Selena doesn’t waste words: “look, if someone gets infected you've got between ten and twenty seconds to kill them. It might be your brother, or your sister, or your oldest friend. It makes no difference. And just so you know where you stand, if it happens to you, I'll do it in a heartbeat.” Her statement, while foreshadowing a powerful climax to come, demands that Jim face the dreadful nature of the situation in which the apocalyptic Britain he awoke to has displaced all that he previously knew.

Their situation is complicated when they join up with a father and daughter, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah, holed up in a high-rise tower estate or council block. It’s a setting that also provides a nod to the tenacity of working-class people and their will to survive through their own ingenuity. Hannah and Jim’s stay in this refuge is short-lived, however, as the group are driven from the high-rise, which J.G. Ballard reminds us can quickly become its own kind of dystopia, due to its lack of water.

The difficulty in obtaining this most fundamental natural resource serves as an allusion to the urgent threat global warming poses to human civilization through drought, another apocalyptic theme Ballard addressed in his fiction. Frank emphasizes this point in surveying an assortment of empty buckets spread over the building’s roof to collect rainwater: “you'd never think it...needing rain so badly. Not in fucking England!”

This dire situation forces them to confront the horrors that lurk all around them to seek out a more secure and permanent shelter, while heartened by a faint radio transmission promising, “salvation is here. The answer to infection is here. If you can hear this, you're not alone. There are others like you. There are others like you. There are other survivors. We are soldiers, and we are armed. And we can protect you. Our location is the 42nd blockade in the M-602...You must find us. Salvation is here.”

With Frank at the helm of his taxi, Hannah, Selena and Jim depart on journey replete with apocalyptic trappings. These include abandoned towns they scavenge for food, rousing nostalgia for a past of lost abundance (and wastefulness), along with close calls with infected and peaceful moments of personal bonding. Their trip leads them to a hauntingly empty M1, where they witness Manchester engulfed in flames, before finally reaching the promised blockade.

Something doesn’t seem quite right as they find the site abandoned but any suspicions are eclipsed by the horror of Frank’s infection by a droplet of blood that falls into his eye from a corpse due the stirring of a crow. Symbolism abounds. As Selena holds Hannah and screams, “Jim, kill him,” Jim hesitates before raising his bat. At this moment, camouflaged soldiers emerge from the landscape, shooting the transformed Frank.

Boyle draws a brilliant juxtaposition with Frank and Hannah’s tower block refuge as Selena, Hannah and Jim are brought to an isolated stately home encircled by barricades, reinforcing the class distinctions emphasized throughout the film. The posh facade of this newfound sanctuary adorned with fine art and sculpture laden with symbolic significance, set alongside stacked boxes of looted home electronics, crumbles away as the trio observes the conversations and actions of the soldiers.

In a scene anticipating the bedlam to come, the soldiers’ leader and new lord of this country home, Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), leads Jim outside through a side door where an infected soldier named Mailer (Marvin Campbell) charges towards them from behind hanging sheets and is halted just out of reach by a chain fastened to his neck. West introduces Jim to this dismal figure, who happens to be a Black person, in a suspiciously barmy way, “Mailer, Jim; Jim Mailer.”

Mailer growls and vomits blood as West provides scant information: “got infected two days ago. Mitchell managed to knock him out cold, and we got a chain around his neck. Keeping him alive.” His account echoes the justification previously articulated for the testing done at the Cambridge lab: “the idea was to learn something about infection. Have him teach me.”

Jim’s query, “and has he?,” elicits a cheeky response from West on a staple food associated with human civilization: “he’s telling me that he’ll never bake bread.” The pseudo-historical commentary West offers is, of course, of the sort he could have no way of confirming given the short duration of his experiment. It only serves to further obscure Mailer’s curious plight.

When considered within the film’s broader storyworld, the scenario West offers about Mailer’s situation is difficult reconcile with the previous depictions of frenzied and berserk infected. A more credible scenario would involve Mailer being first subdued and restrained, similar to the chimps in the opening scene. Mailer’s life sacrificed as an intentionally infected human ‘guinea pig,’ plausibly due to his Blackness, a practice analogous to numerous examples in colonial history. Such a sequence would allow West to gain the information sought more safely while providing a provocative instance of his treachery.

Viewed from this perspective, Mailer’s presence provides amplified substance to the authoritarian tendencies West exhibits, while giving his character an even more potent foreshadowing role. Such behaviors aren’t confined to West either. Several of the soldiers under his command display similar propensities towards racism, as well as misogyny in their interactions with Selena and Hannah. Such treatment also seems to extend toward the other Black soldier under West’s command, Private Bell (Ademola Junior Laniyan), emphasizing the common associations between fascism and racial oppression the film elaborates.

The façade of West’s sanctuary continues to chip away when the welcoming dinner prepared by Private Jones is spoiled by an omelet made using bad eggs. As West spits a rancid bite from his mouth, he asks Hannah if she can cook. Before she can respond, an exploding mine signals the arrival of the infected. This heightens the tension while shifting focus from the implicit chauvinism that lies beneath West’s question.

Their deepest fears are realized upon the soldiers’ return from the defense of the estate after having gleefully shot down numerous infected. Their celebratory enthusiasm, aroused by the adrenaline rush of the fight, however, quickly turns to menace. Corporal Mitchell exclaims, “that was fucking marvelous.” He then approaches Serena, defensively holding her machete, and says, “oh, hello,” as another soldier wolf whistles.

Mitchell’s actions become flagrantly aggressive as he moves closer, grabbing Selena’s machete, before continuing, “listen sweetheart, you ain’t gonna be needing this anymore, eh? Because you got me to protect you now.” Mitchell’s belligerence grows even more sexually charged as he advances towards Selena, the others rooting him on, and says, “you wanna get your hands on a really big chopper...well, you just come and see me.” Selena’s response, “fuck you!” is taken as a provocation as he responds, “yeah, well, how about now,” taking hold of her, threatening sexual violence.

Jim intervenes but Mitchell quickly throws him down with Farrell ordering Mitchell to stand down before striking him with a club. West enters the room, his mere presence enough to break up the scuffle, serving as indication of his unquestioned authority. In a gesture revealing the conspiratorial nature of their intentions, West turns to another of the soldiers, Private Clifton, saying softly, “slow down.”

West orders them to re-secure the perimeter and remove the dead, before handing Selena the machete and offering Jim a drink. The looming violence insinuated in this unsettling scene whereby the soldiers are revealed to be just as dangerous as the infected attunes Selena, Hannah and Jim to the fact that, no, they are not like them. And that these regal environs are no place of ‘salvation’, but a trap now exposed as the site of their greatest peril.

Pouring from a bottle of Scotch appearing to be the same Frank had previously found in an abandoned supermarket during their journey to the blockade, which West has seemingly taken for himself, he divulges their true intentions: “I promised them women.” West goes on to justify his deceptive radio transmission as being done for the greater good of human survival, “because women mean a future.” The short duration of the apocalyptic scenario, however, repudiates any necessity for the violence his rationalization seeks to excuse, while showing just how quickly a free society can spiral into fascistic authoritarianism.

Jim rushes upstairs to Selena and Hannah, the urgency palpable as he frantically exclaims, “we have to go. No time! Come on!” As they hasten towards the exit Jim is floored by a blow from the butt of an assault rifle. He collapses, dazed and disoriented, as a cacophony of quarreling voices amplifies the chaos unfolding around them.

Amidst the turmoil, Farrell, who West previously mocked as their “new age specialist,” defies the others with a resolute shout, “No! You’re not going to keep ‘em here! You’ve got to let ‘em go! I’m not gonna let you keep ‘em.” Outnumbered and surrounded, Farrell’s resistance is short-lived as his fellows overpower him. West stoops beside the fallen Jim, uttering, “I want to give you a chance. You can be with us. But I can’t let them go.” Jim’s firm response, “no!” seals his fate with West decreeing, “him too.” The taciturn nature of West’s communications underscores the clandestine decisions made beyond the awareness of Selena, Jim and Hannah whose perspectives the film follows.

With Mitchell and Jones guiding Farrell and Jim along a tree-lined path within the estate’s wooded expanse, the horror of their situation, as well as that of Selena and Hannah, becomes evident upon reaching an execution site. The already amassed bodies insinuate prior executions, giving emphasis to the meaning of West’s veiled command. Although the identities of the corpses are not revealed, their presence sparks contemplation about the fates of the compound’s former inhabitants and other survivors lured by West’s broadcast, while evoking dreadful associations with totalitarian mass murder.

The film crescendos with a riveting climax set to John Murphy’s rousing score that builds with Jim’s escape during a moment of chaos when Farrell is killed by the accidental discharge of Jones’ gun. Jim seizes on the moment of confusion, first hiding amongst the corpses before scaling the wall as his would-be executioners’ fire blindly into the trees. Seeing his shirt caught on the concertina razor wire strung over the fence and seemingly defenseless outside the estate’s protective walls, they leave him for dead.

Not content to escape just with his life, Jim rises to Selena’s example in confronting West and his men in a breathtaking final showdown. In the harrowing scenes that follow we watch as a once timid and scared Jim takes on the role of the slasher, stalking the soldiers upon his return to the site of injustice where he settles scores and exacts retribution.

Failing to disclose Jim’s escape, Mitchell and Jones return to an escalating situation in which Selena and Hannah are being threatened with imminent rape. Their coercion into donning the attire of the mansion’s former owner to make them “more presentable,” in an attempt to glamorize the heinous deed, creates a particularly disturbing scene. But just as Selena is caught trying to sneak Hannah some valium to make her “not care” and all seems lost, Jim activates a siren at the blockade indicating his presence. Selena’s utterance, “Jim,” reflects enduring hope amid the bleakest of circumstances.

Initiating the film’s climax, Jim dispatches one of West’s soldiers at the blockade who’d accompanied him to investigate, leaving West alone and without transportation. Now armed with the soldier’s rifle, Jim makes his way back to the estate and fires a burst to free Mailer from his captivity. The sound of gunfire, nervously dismissed as thunder, hints at the escalating anxiety of the soldiers. Adding to the sense of doom, Hannah begins to taunt her captors, remarking, “I think they’ve been killed. They’re dead, and you’re gonna be next.”

Mailer bursts through a window attacking Clifton, immediately infecting him. The situation descends into chaos with both Mailer and Clifton rampaging through the house in search of other victims while Jim searches for Selena. Like the classic slasher, Jim forgoes the use of the rifle and instead stabs Jones with the bayonet, leaving the gun behind to continue his mission.

In an example that seems to corroborate the racist origins of Mailer’s infection, Jim finds Private Bell hiding under a bed clutching his assault rifle. His terrified plea, “I haven’t got any fucking bullets,” speaks to his disempowered position amongst the other soldiers, while providing a plausible explanation for his noticeably passive and nervous demeanor throughout the mansion scenes.

An increasingly desperate Mitchell drags Selena along with him, reiterating his vile intentions to keep her as his captive: “It's just you and me now, darlin'...I'm gonna get you out of here. Then, we're gonna find a nice little fuckin' place somewhere...and we'll live happily ever after, eh?” Having finally found them, Jim pounces on Mitchell initiating a brutal fight for survival. The ferocity Jim displays in his attack on Mitchell teases ironically at the primal nature of “rage” as an instinctual or innate aggressive drive that serves as the catalyst of the film.

Throughout the mansion scenes, it is Mitchell who distinguishes himself from his fellow soldiers through displays of aggression and violence that border on sociopathy, giving substance to his role as West’s primary enforcer and executioner. Thus, in order to vanquish Mitchell, Jim must rise to his level of violence. This is precisely what we see in this final scene of brutal combat.

With Selena looking on not knowing whether Jim is infected or not, he bashes Mitchell’s head against the wall and then gouges out his eyes in frenzied burst of aggression that represents an enflamed display of pent-up rage melded with an intense display of care and romantic love. As is clear by the end of the scene when Jim and Selena share a relieved embrace, Jim’s violence was of a different sort. Not roused by the animosities and egomaniacal fervors reflective of sexual aggression, toxic masculinity or an attraction to authoritarian power, but raised out of desperate necessity and in defense of Selena and Hannah.

Major West reappears as Selena, Hannah and Jim flee an estate reduced to a house of horrors to make their escape in Frank’s cab. As Jim opens the door the camera cuts to West sitting in the back seat grasping his rifle. He somberly exclaims, “you killed all my boys,” before pulling the trigger on Jim. Hannah, now behind the wheel, exacts her own just retribution. She throws the car into reverse, ignoring the appeals of West, and backs it into the front door of the house. West is pulled from the car and through the back window by his own infected soldiers in a befitting welcoming back into their fold.

As with many narratives of disaster and apocalypse, the film ends with a scene of improbable hope. Perhaps this is just the kind of ending we still secretly prefer as it allows us to continue to turn our heads from the looming consequences of a future we are all complicit in. But in a broader sense, 28 Days Later is also a reminder that while humans have long demonstrated a willingness and special proficiency in demonizing one’s enemies and making others into animals or monsters, such tactics are always acts of mere projection. True horror, as Danny Boyle and Alex Garland reveal to us, is precisely the vision we see through Clifton’s infected gaze into the mirror that Hannah had hidden herself behind. That the monstrous is not that which lies outside ourselves or even in those we may attempt to demonize as other; the monster is us.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author's and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Hollywood Progressive. Billy J. Stratton is originally from Eastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. He earned a PhD in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and currently teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, film, and critical theory in the Department of English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver.