Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is my favorite horror film — maybe because it doesn’t play out like a horror film. The opening scene depicts animal activists breaking into a lab to release chimpanzees, who are in fact infected with a rage virus. This launches the zombie film that’s not really about zombies and the horror film that’s more of a gritty indie drama than anything else.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in a hospital to find it deserted. When he ventures outside, the whole of London seems empty, and in a series of haunting, lonely shots, he wanders the abandoned city, discovering information about the virus from windblown papers. It turns out the rage virus has caused humans to essentially devour each other.
Soon, Jim meets up with two other survivors, including a young woman named Selena (Naomie Harris) who turns in one of my favorite performances. She tells Jim that once someone is infected, you have 10 to 20 seconds to kill him before he goes berserk with rage — and she proves it in one of her first scenes by ruthlessly hacking her other friend to death after he’s been bitten.
Later, Jim and Selena find two other survivors: a friendly, desperate man named Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his young teenage daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). Picking up a recorded transmission about a safe zone with soldiers in Manchester, they decide to team up and make their way to safety. They’re also hoping for a cure. But what they find in Manchester is not at all what they expected, and a new kind of drama — even a new social commentary — ensues.
The film is shot on video that gives it the grainy style of a documentary or news footage. That adds to the idea that this film is not your typical action horror blockbuster that has people acting like zombie bait for no reason. It also doesn’t play with the audience by withholding information for a cheap twisting ending.
Instead, 28 Days Later establishes a premise with realistic characters, then weaves a simple, cerebral drama from it. Sure, it has moments that make me jump and possesses a sort of strung-out suspense (which I love), but it never exploits these. The film places its unlikely heroes in these dire situations and lets events and relationships unfold organically. Even in a couple of spots that make me tear up, the story rushes onward to avoid sentimentality, which I really appreciate. At one point, faced with potential abuse at the hands of a group of soldiers, Selena offers Hannah Valium, not to kill her but to help her not care so much. These unexpected, inventive moments make the film a treasure.
The other thing I love about the movie is that it never drags. The ending is a violent rush that hits perfect notes, in my opinion… but even before that, the film seems to have three main acts to keep things interesting. Just when the first act of Jim figuring everything out is spent, the film launches into the second act of meeting other survivors and heading to Manchester. The third act even introduces a whole new conflict and shows Jim as a quick-thinking, violent survivor — very changed from that first man who woke up alone and weak in the hospital.
In short, this horror film is more thought-provoking than all-out terrifying, with messages about genetic testing, human limits, gender and human survival. That’s exactly why I love it so much. Almost every time I’ve watched it, it’s inspired conversation. A few years ago, friends and I discussed what we would do if we were placed in Jim’s situation at the start of the film; each of our answers — find other survivors, head for open ground, hole up to die peacefully — was extremely telling.
As far as horror films go, 28 Days Later is certainly not the scariest. But as a rasping indie drama with plenty of frights — both horror-related and psychological — it’s a personal favorite that I watch again and again.