19 August 2007

28 Days Later

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Alex Garland

Grade: A-

28 Days Later opens as A Clockwork Orange with monkeys, with images of large-scale, international violence being played on several contiguous monitors and watched by a constrained ape. The ape is part of a medical research project soon interrupted by animal rights activists intent on freeing the prisoners; while their idealism might be sympathetic, their dogmatically informed actions prove misguided when they unwittingly unleash an epidemic of the highly contagious "rage virus", with which the apes unfortunately happened to be infected, onto the unsuspecting English populace.

Cillian Murphy, sporting some uncharacteristic tufts of hair on his face, awakens in an abandoned hospital—in his birthday suit—an obscurely unnerving twenty eight days later; "don't wake up," his parents advised from beyond the grave, or so he'll later discover from their suicide note, scribbled on the back of a photograph of a boy-aged Murphy. But it's too late, he's made the mistake of coming to, finding nothing but inoperable payphones and cans of Pepsi as the sole form of available nourishment. Recalling the opening, terrifying loneliness of many an episode of The Twilight Zone, Murphy hits the trash-ridden streets of London where nary a soul is to be seen and the most prominent artifact is an overturned double-decker bus. Ubiquitously plastered missing posters, and the strewn detritus, evoke 9/11, which was a fresh wound at the time, while all the background billboardry, in combination with the Pepsi product placement shots, gives the film the aura of apocalyptically-themed advertising.

Such is the brilliantly crafted doomsday tableau of 28 Days Later, distinct for being the first zombie movie to feature major London thoroughfares entirely vacated, as well as some monstrous living-dead that can run, as opposed to lurching forward in a slow hypnotic state. (In the traditional sense, 28 Days Later's monsters are not quite zombies, as they are alive and merely infected with a virus, but for a lack of a more apt and economical term I retain it.) Allegorically revealing, the first zombies Murphy meets are a priest and his parishioners in a corpse-addled church, where they are feeding off the flesh of the dead. (Ordinarily, Christians only feed on the flesh of their dead god.) Graffiti on the wall reads, "Repent—the end is extremely fucking nigh."

Zombies and zombie movies serve as great allegories, and at first the filmmakers seem intent to take swipes at the violence and viciousness of organized religion, with some soft criticism of militant animal rights groups on the margins, but the metaphor soon shifts. Murphy takes up with a duo of members of the zombie resistance, one of whom, Naomie Harris, advises him that "staying alive's as good as it gets," curtly dismissing any genre conventions like finding a cure or hoping to "fall in love and fuck." According to a bit of expository dialogue from Harris, the countryside is the source of the rage virus and, accordingly, the source of their trouble. But by the second act, as Murphy and Harris take up with a middle-aged English chap and his daughter (Harris' previous ally de resistance is killed-off quickly), the makeshift family sets off for what they hope to be their salvation, a remote military outpost twenty-seven miles north of Manchester broadcasting a signal of hope to any survivors. The countryside now their one chance at peace, the rage virus becomes a metaphor for the oppressive crime and solitude of city-life.

For in leaving the city, the quartet slowly become a makeshift family, reflected in a tacky sequence in which they observe the majesty of four alternately black and white horses acting together as a family unit. (Harris is black.) The ensuing scenes of family bonding are undeniably sweet, but just in case he may be getting too sappy, Boyle is careful to counter every lighthearted moment, such as a grocery-store shopping spree, with a grim counterpoint, such as the image of a dead infant prominently featured in the succeeding scene. (Boyle carefully balances the film's tone; for every joke, there is a subsequent sequence of gruesome violence or an image of bleak macabre.)

On reaching the military base, philosophical discussion takes over as the soldiers discuss the nature of "normalcy": if humanity destroys itself, won't that be a state of normalcy for the planet, which has spent most of its billions of years of existence absent of mankind? And anyway, isn't people-killing-people a state of normalcy for humanity? If the conditions of life under the rage virus are a lot like those of civil war, are they so abnormal? But running under this section of the film, even stronger than these Big Questions, is a lot of sexual tension, and when the salaciously vile intentions of the military become known, it speaks a dual commentary: on the one hand, about the prurience of rural/exurban living, while on the other hand, about the viciousness of army and life during wartime.

28 Days Later is as cynical and mistrustful a film as Children of Men, in that through its protagonists it discourages us from trusting anyone, not the government, here represented by the army, nor the people, here represented by cannibalistic zombies. Don't take sides because every side is corrupt; the film encourages the viewer to recognize that they're on their own. We could even, possibly, extend this line of thinking, if inclined to overanalysis, and say the theme, or one of the themes, of 28 Days Later is a rejection of partisanship informed by blind devotion, whether to a need for flesh for the purposes of eating or fucking. The early scene of animal rights activists, then, is not a critique of their particular ideological standpoint but rather a critique of ideological devotion in all its forms, progressive and reactionary alike.

Each act of 28 Days Later is tonally distinct; the last act plays like a slasher movie with Murphy cast as the supervillain (and, simultaneously, superhero.) It could be accused of uneven-ness but, rather, I think the disparate sections speak to its broad, complex and multilayered assessment of modern life. It's far-reaching without ever becoming muddled or unfocused; 28 Days Later has a lot to say, a lot of potential readings, and it does it all with a thrilling, terrifying, intellectual brio and a handheld digital urgency.

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