28 Days Later Review
There was a large amount of interest in the release of 28 Days Later, much more so than is typical for a horror film ostensibly about zombies. It would be fair to say that much of this has to do with the involvement of Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald, a director/producer team still highly regarded following Shallow Grave and their cultural snapshot adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Although their critical and commercial ascendency went into free fall with A Life Less Ordinary and their adaptation of Alex Garland's The Beach, Boyle and Macdonald are still an appreciated British enterprise and their latest film, 28 Days Later, was seen both as an exhilarating return to form and a spiritual successor to the apocalyptic television series of the late-70's of which Survivors is probably the most well known.
28 Days Later opens with a break-in by animal rights activists at a research lab in Cambridgeshire, where monkeys are being experimented on with exposure to live viruses and violent media. Despite warnings from a lab supervisor, the three activists release a monkey that spreads a virus of pure rage, infecting its victim in less than half a minute. Within the 28 days of the title, Britain has been completely overrun with the infected and only small numbers of survivors remain in the city, fighting to stay alive.
In a hospital bed, Jim (Murphy), who was a bicycle courier in London, awakes from a coma he incurred as a result of a car accident sustained prior to the spread of the infection. He finds the hospital building, the streets outside and entire capital deserted but for 'Missing Persons' notices and a newspaper in which the headline screams 'Evacuation!". Quite understandably, Jim believes he is alone but in taking refuge in a church, he finds that the population of London is very much alive but terrifyingly different to how he remembered.
The first thing about 28 Days Later that viewers will notice is the striking use of digital video. The reasons for its use are widely quoted as being cost and speed, enabling Boyle to not only capture London's deserted streets in the few minutes the roads were closed but also permitting him the freedom to, at times literally, throw the cameras into the action, which he does with gusto. Of course, both of these advantages would have been lost had 28 Days Later been seen as a gimmick but, on DVD at least as I can't speak for the cinema release, the effect is one of a director choosing a medium in line with his subject matter. As with the BBC's black-hearted comedy The League Of Gentlemen, the DV source on 28 Days Later has been treated with various filters to ensure that post-production captures the essence of what it failed to do on location, principally one of an imminent attack by the infected.
Of course, aside from that, 28 Days Later simply looks like very little else. Compared to the number of films released with an homogeneous and artificial CG sheen picked up during digital editing, 28 Days Later looks punked up, as out of place as The Fall's riotous Totale's Turn from 1980 would be in when played alongside that same year's Live album by The Eagles.
Looking beyond just the imagery, the early scenes in London set the film off to a superb opening act, resulting in a dreamlike yet shocking beginning. Who hasn't once dreamt of waking up to find themselves alone in an otherwise crowded city and being able to enjoy the resulting freedom. Surely it must cross the mind of everyone who either live or works in London on a daily basis but as with Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma or Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the freedom enabled by being alone or one of a small band of survivors is soon challenged by the realisation that all is not well in isolation.
The problem with 28 Days Later is that its imagery and direction is hampered by a very poor script. Alex Garland and his publishers have marketed his books as an essential part of the British twentysomething culture but his writing here lacks the depth and intelligence necessary to make an effective zombie movie where gore is not the sole reason for being. Garland has plagiarised and referenced all the right films but his single innovative concept - the parallel between medical and social rage - is dragged into the script with a rate that is alarming to begin with but by the time Major West (Ecclestone) sits down at a dinner and - as if you might not have got it yet - spells out the core metaphor one more time, the film becomes almost parodic in its repetition of its one new idea. An hour in and you'll be thinking, "Social intolerance and anger being infectious, like a disease...I've got it, now move on!"
Of the cast, both Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, the latter previously seen in the BBC's New Labour drama The Project and Channel 4's adaptation of White Teeth, do well but lack sufficient presence to carry the film on their own and those looking for a strong central character will be glad when Brendan Gleeson as Frank appears in the film. Gleeson provides 28 Days Later with the one character capable of emotionally connnecting the viewer and the film but the presence of Harris and Murphy do very little to assist him. Christopher Ecclestone, normally a very good actor, is all clipped tones and army cliches, more a symptom of the writing than Ecclestone's acting.
Yet, you'll possibly be glad to hear that the film never really falls over despite being encumbered both by the missteps of a poor script and the insubstantial acting of its leads. The overall feeling coming off the film is one of a qualified success that is being carried, despite its shortcomings, by Boyle's assured direction. 28 Days Later is intruiging, interesting to look at but not worthy of any in-depth study as Garland has let the film down with a poor story, failing to take advantage of the options available to him and producing little more than a pumped up prequel to that very same Survivors.
Given the transfer has been sourced from the 35mm print off the original DV source, the picture is acceptable but some could find it difficult to tolerate, which is not to say it's difficult to watch but simply that you will have to be prepared to put up with a fairly muted picture, washed-out pastels but strong primary colours and a graininess that appears and disappears depending on the location. It is this last aspect of the film that have led some people to question whether DV was actually used throughout and they are right, it's not. Where Boyle used digital filters to enhance the appearance of the picture depending on the effect he was trying to achieve, 35mm film was used at the end of the film to engineer a different response in the audience and because of this, a source DV edit for the entire film was not available for the transfer, which would have been preferable had it existed. As ever, though, if you believe you will not have a problem based on the screen shots here, allowing for compression, then 28 Days Later will not cause you any concern.
Otherwise, 28 Days Later has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
28 Days Later comes with its original Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track intact and while it is acceptable, it is in keeping with the visual tone of the film in that it is a little rough around the edges, particularly as regards the score by John Murphy. The dialogue is kept firmly to the front and centre with the surround tracks only really being used during the frantic attacks by the infected and during those moments when the musical score is used, which is typically only during the action set-pieces.
Audio Commentary: Alex Garland and Danny Boyle provide a feature-length commentary mixing trivia, a critical view on their work and open acknowledgement of their influences. Garland is actually quite subdued throughout, leaving Boyle to comment on the film for most of its length and, therefore, the commentary is unlike two friends meeting to discuss their work but of professionals contracted to do a job. There is little said within the commentary that most viewers won't have worked out for themselves when watching the film, aside from the odd very minor detail and is worth probably only one listen.
Stills Gallery w/ Commentary (18m26s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): 28 Days Later had a stills photographer on-set throughout its production and the resulting images are presented here in a slide show with a fixed commentary by Danny Boyle.
Polaroid Gallery w/ Commentary (4m14s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is much the same as the Stills Gallery but uses a slide show of Polaroid stills, mostly taken by the costume designers with another fixed commentary by Danny Boyle.
Pure Rage: The Making Of 28 Days Later (24m21s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): You may only learn a little about the actual making of the film but you will realise that the human race might eventually be wiped out by a communicable disease, possibly one that has yet to develop.
Theatrical Teaser (1m30s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a brief run through the plot of the film based on the 28 day timeline, finishing with Jim waking in the hospital only to find it deserted.
Theatrical Trailer (1m58s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is much the same as the Theatrical Teaser but with an expanded look at the action following Jim's awakening.
Animated Storyboards from the UK Website (1m31s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This takes the form of a trailer but uses the simple red, white and black hand-drawn storyboards from the pre-release website, which are presented in a tiny window in the centre of the screen with a soundtrack edited from the film.
Jacknife Lee Music Video (6m21s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a six minute editing of the original film to accompany music from the soundtrack. In being a full edit, all of the major scenes are included along with the ending so, to avoid spoilers, do not watch this extra feature before you watch the main film.
Abandoned Train Deleted Scene (6m21s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Jim and Naomie search an abandoned train that had been used by the Red Cross to treat victims of the epidemic.
The Infected In The House Deleted Scene (2m26s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Jim re-enters the mansion just as the infected invade en masse.
Hospital Dream Deleted Scene (4m29s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a dream sequence originally placed at the ending of the film that recounts Jim's original traffic accident and acts as an accompanying piece to the first alternate ending.
Motorway Carnage Deleted Scene (1m18s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): During the taxi drive out of London, the survivors encounter a pile-up on the motorway blocking their exit. This was cut from the film due to the amount of CG work required to deleted moving traffic on the surrounding roads.
Floorboards Deleted Scene (0m51s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Jim, following his return to the mansion, is almost caught by the infected but hides under the floorboards.
Taxi/Sweden Deleted Scene (1m44s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Clearly never destined for the film, this shows the Murphy, Harris and Gleeson playing up to the part of being a taxi driver as the black cab they're driving heads north on the motorway. The dialogue is out of synch, leaving one to assume that very little work was done on this prior to its inclusion on the DVD.
London Walk Deleted Scene (1m20s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is simply some extra footage from the scenes shot in London, showing Jim walking through the city's deserted streets.
Danny Boyle and Alex Garland contribute commentaries to each deleted scene.
Alternate Ending (2m28s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): In combination with the Hospital Dream Deleted Scene, this offers a slightly different and more downbeat ending to the one that was used in the theatrical release.
Radical Alternate Ending (11m22s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Over a series of storyboards, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland read the spoken parts and stage direction, respectively, for a second alternate ending that is completely different from either that which was used in the theatrical release or the slightly different one also included here. There are a number of spoilers in this so you would be best not to watch it until after the film and after viewing it, one cannot help but agree with Boyle that, frankly, it doesn't work, particularly as regards the science of the infection.
Looking back, the initial critical view on 28 Days Later was rather an optimistic one, much in the same way that every mildly successful British film shall once more herald the cry that, "The British are coming!" In fact, the British film industry has been making solid horror films from long before the justifiably famous Hammer studios started production and 28 Days Later is simply one of the latest in a long line of examples. It is not, however, a startling revolution in horror but it is a reasonable entry into the canon of British horror, directed with gusto by Danny Boyle, which does most of the work to cover up the cracks in Alex Garland's script.
I can't wholly recommend 28 Days Later as it just won't be for everyone but it isn't bad - no better, no worse, just not bad. It is, however, difficult to feel any greater reaction than simply saying that - it passes the time - but a socially aware zombie film, set in a post-apocalyptic Britain with relevant points to make as to how we are currently living our lives should make one feel and react to a rather greater extent. 28 Days Later is, sadly, a wasted opportunity.