Fear is a curious thing: always on the cutting edge, perched precariously, looking ravenously in at ordered society from the wilderness. In the 1964 classic “Failsafe”, Americans were taken through the terrifying experience of New York’s destruction by a nuclear bomb — the new, wild weapon of the day. 1997 gave us “Dante’s Peak” that unleashed a volcano of ghastly cliches on a small village, demonstrating nature’s devastatingly uncontrollable power. Now scientists have managed to crack the genome and following the anthrax attacks in late 2001, genetically engineered viruses entered the public consciousness as the scariest of them all. Peter Boyle’s rugged, silty grey journey runs smack into the middle of this zone armed only with a little black comedy, a digital camera and a lot of zombies. While these may be the ingredients of a schlock B horror film, through a mixture of luminescent camera work and refined performances from the talented cast, Boyle emerges with a very fine philosophical film that has a nice dose of infectious terror thrown in.
Seasoned director Danny Boyle (of “Trainspotting” fame) and newbie screenwriter Alex Garland’s dark humor froths forth from the very beginning of the film as animal activists sneak into a laboratory in England and set free a monkey carrying a deadly virus known only as “Rage.” The activists are the first to succumb to the disease which then spreads throughout Europe. But Jim (Cillian Murphy) doesn’t know anything about the virus because he has been in a coma. He wakes up to find himself naked in a hospital bed. He calls for a nurse but there is no answer, so he gets up to explore. As he moves through the empty hospital, Boyle gives us a memorable shot of four payphones with their receivers dangling, swaying slightly, completely useless now.
Jim then makes his way through London, which is also deserted, and is rescued by two people in gas masks. He learns from these two survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), the terrible nature of the virus: within 20 seconds of blood-to-blood contact, the victims become bloodthirsty animals (called “the infected” by Selena) who attack anything that moves. Selena is tough, telling Jim after she has just killed an infected, “Just so you know where you stand, I’d do it to you in a heartbeat.” Acted with great skill by Harris, Selena gradually shows confusion and vulnerability under her tough facade while at the same time remaining as tightly-wound as a spring. She is wary of Jim, and it is only over time that she warms to him, showing the terror that attachment has for her in this new world.
Later on, Selena and Jim (now traveling alone) meet up with the plump, sadly-jolly Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his quiet daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). These two are wonderful examples of the good that can come from humanity, which is juxtaposed with the evil released by the virus. Gleeson eloquently conveys Frank’s underlying sadness at the death of his wife and his powerful love for his daughter. At one particularly telling moment, he quietly grabs five bottles of rum from a deserted grocery store with a smile, but his eyes tell the sad truth.
Interestingly, not all the horror of “28 Day Later” comes from Rage. Boyle begins the film with images of the terrible wars, of the terrible atrocities inflicted by our race. And later, he hammers this point home by leading Frank, Hannah, Selena, and Jim on a quest for an army bunker advertised on Frank’s hand-powered radio. The most dangerous game begins when they find the bunker, and it plays out with some startling cinematography. Notable sequences include a shot of the ancient Laocoon, the archetypal example in sculpture of man’s ultimate suffering, lit with eery blue light through the rain, and a haunting shot of Hannah wearing a shimmering, cloudy red dress running down the yellowing halls of a mansion.
Most of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s stark shots are lit by candlelight, lightening or uneven man-made lights, leaving the characters to look for some small comfort in these inadequate pools. On top of the loneliness of the shots, Mantle loves to position the camera so it is looking through glass or wood at the main action. Some scenes aren’t even viewed directly; we see what is occurring only in reflection. Every shot is littered with relics, objects that man creates for comfort. As Selena and Jim use train tracks as the quickest path through London, or Frank places a credit card next to an empty cash register, a sad nostalgia for order and the banality of life oozes into the film. So, while the Rage virus is the dark side of man, the destructive nature, it seems that objects represent our creative instinct, which redeems the human race.
At the very beginning of the film, a scientist desperately explains to the activists, “In order to cure you must first understand.” In a way, Boyle’s Rage virus, and “28 Days Later” itself, is an attempt to find a cure by revealing mankind’s major problem: anger management. It is this attempt at altering belief that raises “28 Days Later” above the everyday scare-fest.