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Monday 7 July 2003

28 Days Later

Reviewed by John Shirley

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Alex Garland
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston

First, this is a very good film. It's an apocalyptic zombie film for the 21st century, outdoing Romero, a tale of escaped biowarfare viruses that turn most people in the world, seconds after infection, into raging murderous zombies. A handful of people — a la The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man — fight their way to the north of England to find the source of a radio message calling them to salvation: there they find an isolated group of soldiers, and treachery.

Second, and this is what I really feel like saying, this film proves that Hollywood horror-film-making is 98% imaginatively-bankrupt money-wasting bullshit, by comparison. Sure, this film had the advantage of a great director, Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and The Beach, and a fine writer, Alex Garland. But do you know what this thing cost? Neither do I, but it had to be inexpensive, for it was shot in digital video, with no stars in it — some very good actors, but no stars — and minimal special effects. Barely any. Just great staging, imaginative set scouting, smart camerawork. I mean, seriously, just imagine how much that idiotic remake of The Haunting cost. At least — at LEAST — ten times more than Boyle's movie. Somewhere around 80 or (some reports) a 100 million dollars for The Haunting and the best special effects and filming equipment, and they couldn't make a single good film. Danny Boyle takes a video camera and makes a film ten times better, at least, with a tenth the money. Can you imagine what would happen if the studios regularly hired really good writers and filmmakers on this basis, and just let them be creative, without interfering? Scores more good movies, that's what would happen. It makes me fucking SICK. Flesh eating zombies don't make me sick — brain eating executives make me sick. Brain eating? They take talented people — like those guys who made The Blair Witch Project — and they eat their brains. Evidently, judging by Blair Witch 2.

Think about Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, now. In 1942 they made Cat People on a low budget, no special effects to speak of. They had real film, but it was limited to black and white, and they had only a few sets to shoot on. One facet of their genius was that they made their cinematic limitations into assets.

Boyle has done the same thing. Somehow he's shot this film so that digital video seems an asset — the film has an overall visual character that seems to suggest that at any moment grit may dissolve into dream. It uses color and image framing with startling compositional effect. He experiments with video cutting and makes the action scenes terrifyingly chaotic without — for the most part — losing coherence. Now and then the action becomes too compressed, too darkly shot to easily follow — but even that seems apt.

The first act is brilliantly shot. After animal activists ironically (and quite accidentally) set the virus loose on the world, we jump ahead 28 Days to Cilian Murphy as a young man named Jim who wakes up after a coma to find the world apparently deserted. Boyle wittily renders this re-experiencing of the modern world as bleak wasteland with intelligent camera angles, images that speak the pure language of cinema.

There's humor in the film at times — graffiti that says "THE END IS EXTREMELY FUCKING NIGH" made me laugh out loud — and there are human moments, moments of desperation and passion and loopiness that make you feel that these are real people.

The acting is superb. Cillian Murphy has an amazing face and is intensely charismatic; he is destined to be a movie star and deserves it. Brendan Gleeson is utterly believable as the girl Hannah's father, Naomie Harris (where have I seen her before?) is very fine, touching and tough as Selena.

I don't want to infect, so to speak, my review with any spoilers. The military can't be trusted — we all knew that anyway. I'll just say that men when they're enraged, even without zombie plagues, are all too much like raging zombies: that's some of the subtext here.

28 Days Later is perhaps not as scary as it thinks it is — but it's paced like a machine gun burst, and it's gripping and wry. Boyle took a damned good script, infused it into the film medium, and then worked them together like water and clay in the hands of a master sculptor. It's real film making folks.

Just think about all that money being wasted in Los Angeles.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

Previous film review by John Shirley:

The Matrix Reloaded

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