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What would you do with a diseased little island?

28 Days Later

(SPOILERS) Evolution’s a nasty business. If not for its baleful influence, all those genetically similar apes – or bats – would be unable to transmit deadly lab-made viruses to humans and cause a zombie plague. Thank the lord we’ve got science on our side, to save us from such scientifically approved, stamped and certified terrors. Does Danny Boyle believe in the programming he expounds? As in, is he as aware of 28 Days Later’s enforcement of the prescribed paradigm in the same manner as the product placement he oversees in every other frame of the movie (and yes, he could have chosen the Alex Cox option for the latter; it would at least have shown some wit)?

Or does he simply do as he’s told, nursing the notion of his auteurish grandeur and duly producing the made-to-order, nightmarish occult ritual of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony? For which, he was rewarded with many hours in the editing suite, up close and personal with Rosario Dawson’s shaven snatch. Back a decade, however, to more innocent times, at which point Boyle had only innocuously fostered heroin chic (Trainspotting) and sanitised the blood-orgy climax of Alex Garland’s The Beach for its neutered screen translation (and in the Hollywood-ising process, alienated his then go-to star Ewan McGregor for the subsequent two decades).

28 Days Later may have seemed like something of an enema, a low-budget zombie movie self-consciously shot on scrappy HD cameras, but it also proved a savvy and shrewd move, one that would arguably be much more influential in terms of kickstarting the new zombie cycle than the glossier Resident Evil series. The apocalypse needed to be heralded, as we now know, and Danny would be sure to do his bit as one its foot soldiers, preparing the way with signs and portents, in concert with Apocalypse Now-obsessed Alex Garland (see the final acts of most of his works). 28 Days Later proposed the terrifying possibility of a viral apocalypse (I know, right), while the later Sunshine proffered an environmental one (Greta be praised), even if man wasn’t responsible (Greta stares devil eyes).

While Boyle’s first three movies – and even The Beach, to a degree – suggested a consistent stylistic progression, a pop-whizz filmmaker tackling diverse material in an exuberant and infectious fashion, Boyle would soon become a more readily evident journeyman, the salient common thread between projects shepherded his way being the technical bangs and whistles he’d bring to bear. His trio of pictures with Alex Garland duly presented a different, messier, less coherent approach to storytelling than the exactitudes of John Hodge (excepting the latter adapting Garland).

Boyle is nothing if not a genre-adaptable moviemaker (although his broader comedy chops are open for debate – see A Life Less Ordinary), and he’d shown his horror acumen already with Shallow Grave. It’s no surprise then, that he provokes a pulse-pounding atmosphere during the opening stages of 28 Days Later. Sure, you have to wonder how deserted London is so tidily deserted, bereft of tell-tale signs of raged-upon bodies, but Garland has borrowed from the right source material (John Wyndham) in his post-event hospital opening (The Walking Dead would later follow suit).

He sets this scene with actual rioting footage and experimented-upon apes (watching TV, just like us). Consequently, he’s invoking the “we have it coming” ethos of Planet of the Apes and 12 Monkeys. Sure, you might interpret this to suggest animal rights activists are as stupid and ignorant as squaddies are later shown to be, but we all know such messing with “viruses” is a time bomb waiting to happen; we’ve been taught the idea is potent, not only feasible but also inevitable, over and over again, such that, when the planned event “happens” we gladly swallow it hook line and sinker. We’re even willing to have “Rage” injected into our systems, if the venom with which any who abstain are greeted is any measure.

Boyle’s lo-fi aesthetic, working with DP Antony Dod Mantle, is quite ghastly, but it undeniably serves the overall design. The 28 Days Later soundtrack is likewise dedicated, as notable as in most of Boyle’s movies, in particular John Murphy’s singular but much borrowed In the House – In a Heartbeat. It also, quite correctly, shone a spotlight on Blue States (Season Song plays out over the end credits).

The early stages of an apocalypse movie tend to be the best ones – the Dawn of the Dead remake’s a couple of years later is up there as one of the best sustained sequences of tension ever – and Boyle doesn’t go far wrong here as Jim (Cillian Murphy, since Ewan, grumpy for some reason, passed) discovers churches are no refuge – Boyle and Garland desecrating the old order – before having him rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley).

Harris is great here, but the movie also serves to highlight how she has sunk into career indifference, such that a second-fiddle role like Moneypenny is considered a positive. Brendan Gleeson also makes a showing as ultra-nice dad – so he must clearly Rage-out at some point – to Hannah (Megan Burns, later to self-style herself as the alarming Betty Curse).

The first hint that letting Garland loose on a script – and no, nothing he’s done since has convinced me otherwise, be it Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina or Annihilation – was a bad idea comes with the abrupt collapse of character motivation as our survivors agree to enter a very dangerous tunnel. We’ve already seen that Selena is uber capable and coolly pragmatic, not hesitating in hacking up Mark upon his infection. So why does she accept the “most direct route”, while Jim is suddenly full of cautionary wisdom? Come to that, why does Frank (Gleeson) willingly imperil his daughter with the bravado of taxiing into the deadly dark?

On the other side, there’s time for the relief of a shopping expedition (cf Dawn of the Dead, the original, and an opportunity for more product placement) before Boyle and Garland derail the proceedings, heading down the cul-de-sac of stale military survivalists and forced-breeding programmes/harem (“I promised them women”).

Suddenly, 28 Days Later is looking very much like ’70s post-apocalypse fare, matters not helped any by Christopher Eccleston’s faux-plummy turn as the major in charge of the mansion refuge; anyone who’s listened to Chris will know he can’t wait to let the upper classes have it, Chris.

A bit like Doctor Who, then, as soon as Eccleston enters the scene, the proceedings take a nosedive. Rage zombies are on the backburner in favour of internal politics, strife and imminent rape. Until, that is, Jim goes full Willard on the squaddies and unleashes the zombies, culminating in proving, with facile abandon, the major’s “people killing people” maxim – picture’s most gruesome moment has Jim gouging Corporal Mitchell’s eyes out as he does for him (Ricci Hartnett makes Mitchell an entirely loathsome individual, but nevertheless). Of all the directions 28 Days Later could have headed, this was surely the least inspired.

The movie comes round to the idea – not fixed when Boyle and Garland began – that this is an isolated UK outbreak, hence the hopeful “HELLO” of the ending (alternate endings had Jim dying; you’ll have to see the sequel for the purest nihilism and the grossest gore). Not generally Garland’s chosen foot forward. He would, of course, later deliver transhumanist, toxic-male tract Ex Machina, so he’s fully in cahoots with attempts to influence the masses, when he’s not glorying in their inevitable decimation. But then, what else to expect from an individual whose family history rather celebrates those who are superior and deserve to survive as opposed to those who do not? Garland’s maternal grandfather was known as the father of transplantation and his wife was the chairman of the Family Planning Association, eugenicists both, so a rich and unenviable family history there.

28 Days Later’s problem-reaction-solution is inevitably Hegelian – government creates the threat, and is required to restore order eventually: “Course there’s a government. There’s always a government!” (we need them both to produce “it”, and keep us safe from “it”).

The Rage idea itself, that the virus “brings out something within us all” is an essentially nihilistic one, of the corrupt core of humanity that doesn’t deserve to continue. Boyle and Garland were inspired by such touchstones as Ebola and Rwanda, conspiracy rabbit holes both. He also prominently displays the iconography of the National Lottery, from which the movie received funding; 28 Days Later only has the “sheen” of a bargain-basement production (it cost several million more than the much more polished Shaun of the Dead).

That false promise of a feel-good fortune would later be milked to Oscar acclaim with Slumdog Millionaire and its deceitful “hard-hitting” wish-fulfilment fantasy. Boyle would then out-squirm anything in this movie or its sequel by depicting James Franco sawing his arm off and succeeding in not making it a heart-warming comedy. Garland, meanwhile, would continue with his Apocalypse Now riffs. Ironically, for such an enormous fan, he claimsI don’t really like the Marlon Brando stuff in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but it’s still one of my favourite movies”. But then, he is just an errand boy, sent by his superiors, to deliver a memo.

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