Warning: There are a few spoilers below (again thanks to MacTingz)
I just finished watching 28 Days Later for the first time since its theatrical run. I remember disliking it initially but really enjoyed it this time. It’s possible the reasons it left such a negative impression has less to do with the film and more with me: at the time I was a zombie purist, believing anything mimicking George A. Romero films or maneuvering into the surreal in this genre was banal. I think I’ve outgrown this sentiment, explaining my enjoyment this time around. Danny Boyle’s zombie film does sometimes retreat into the absurd with the visuals – fields of pastel looking flowers, animated windmills, etc. – but where this bothered me before it’s now just part of the film’s aesthetic and doesn’t really bother me. The film itself is more interesting than these few moments I disliked before; the way it presents sadism and humanity’s primal instincts, whether the characters are humans or zombies, is aptly accomplished.
28 Days Later’s final act is a sublime investigation of humanity’s violent nature, showing what’s perceived as a violent other and the violence inherent in familiars. After finding the military blockade Jim, Hannah, and Selena end up with a group of soldiers who initially seem benevolent but end up being sexually frustrated and keen on raping Jim’s female companions (even though Hannah’s only about 12 or 13). These characters embody both sex and violence – willing to commit violence for sex. What really makes them any different from the infected zombies? Their willingness to torture and harm women, women who survived a gruelingly violent new world and who are potentially the last few people alive anywhere, is appalling. After the soldiers realize Jim doesn’t condone their plans he’s targeted for death, barely surviving. This leads into his revenge strategy, where he acknowledges his primal nature and systematically forges the demise of the offending soldiers.
Boyle’s male protagonist embraces the nature of the soldiers and the millions, if not billions, of zombies outside the blockade in order to save his friends. Once again, what makes him any different from the zombies? Jim’s adherence to the ethics and morals of a deceased world are admirable and separate him from the amoral soldiers; his loyalty to his friends is also commendable, but engaging in cold-blooded murder, even against the guilty, still places him in the cruel category. Of course, I could say everybody is capable of murder and Boyle’s film comments on how people are all the same regardless of how we classify them; that despite national boundaries and the “us and them” world we inhabit everybody is capable of barbarism – regardless of creed, national origin, or beliefs. 28 Days Later does state this, but it also delves deeper into the motivations for violence, exploring justifiable violence. In the case of Jim his actions are credible because from the audience’s viewpoint the protagonists are justified and the soldiers aren’t. The soldiers’ actions are deplorable and the zombies are obviously enemies but the actions Jim implements place him in the same category as the two foes; he becomes what he morally objects to.
I personally object to the death penalty and don’t believe in vengeance but I don’t think Jim’s situation falls into this category. He was placed into a kill or be killed situation; only a few hours before his revenge he was targeted for murder by the soldiers, taken out into a secluded part of the blockade’s forest area and almost assassinated. His motivations – survival – operate outside of a death penalty debate but he still gives agency to vehement actions, placing him alongside the film’s antagonists. Like Barbara (Patricia Tallman) states in the Tom Savini helmed remake of the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, “they’re us; we’re them and they’re us.”
After watching the film I perused the three alternate endings on the disc and was really annoyed; the original ending, where Jim dies in an abandoned hospital, is much better than the sappy finale geared for the moviegoing public. Considering the film’s low-budget (£5 million pounds), I’m surprised Boyle and Fox didn’t take a chance with a grim ending; an ending appropriate for such a violent and harsh film. I understand the symbolism of the film’s final scene, where Jim, Hannah, and Selena create a giant cloth “hello” for military planes to see, and its connection to Jim’s jaunt around post-apocalyptic London in the first act (where he yells, “hello” with Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing underneath), but I felt Boyle’s attempt at a happy ending, especially when compared with the original, bleak ending is trite. It’s odd too, since I really didn’t mind the happy ending when I watched the film but after witnessing the filmmakers’ original intention in the special features I feel differently. I didn’t listed to Boyle’s audio commentary so I can’t state whether it was changed because of audience reaction or because he felt it worked better but I feel leaving the film on such a dour note would’ve worked better and kept with the film’s ambiance.
Once again, Boyle created a solid movie (regardless of my disdain for the ending used) and also incorporates a great score, using Godspeed (as before mentioned) and Brian Eno’s material from the Apollo album amongst other quality compositions. His deviation from the doom and gloom of your traditional zombie fare, where the four travelers raid a grocery store and camp out in a secluded part of the English countryside, makes his film different and enjoyable. This scene developed the characters, demonstrating the difficulties of giving up their former world and making Jim’s embrace of his primal instincts all the more impactful. A small complaint I have regards Boyle’s use of quick cuts, a technique implemented by music video directors and many modern horror filmmakers – making the horror more reliant on editing techniques instead of storytelling. 28 Days Later works as a scary movie, regardless of these methods, but I’ve always felt these are the signs of lazy narratives; maybe 28 Days Later is an exception.
Here is the film’s trailer