My distaste for the majority of horror films is well documented. In short, they are among the most formulaic of movie genres. In other words, predictable. On the other hand, I do not totally mind predictability. One thing I cannot do while watching any piece of cinema is turn off my brain. Rightly or wrongly, I will find a logic trail, and if at some point it deviates from what I see as the clear path ahead, then it will start to take me out of the experience. The films that can subtly draw you along are the best. Horror tends to be as obvious as saying it is raining in the middle of a thunderstorm. And because they typically deal with themes that are uncomfortable, or blatantly insulting, to my Faith, I tend to avoid them. Hence, when I talk about one of these movies, know that there is something to it that makes it stand out from the rest. This is the case for 28 Days Later (2002).
28 Days Later actually begins four weeks earlier as a group of animal rights activists break into a government research lab in London. Heedless of warnings, they commence to freeing various creatures kept in cages. Doing so releases a primate with what is known as the “Rage” virus. Okay, that is a cheesy name, but the rest is better, I promise. This fast-acting bug turns people into violent, blood thirsty monsters within minutes of infection, which is passed by fluids from one person to the next one. With the proverbial pandora’s box open, we now move ahead the title amount of time. We see bike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) awaking alone in a shattered hospital, things strewn about him. Finding some nurse’s scrubs, he wanders out into the streets, which are also abandoned. With night soon falling, he enters a church and encounters what he thinks are people, but are rather a herd of infected, who give chase. He is saved by two survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), though initially they are unsure as to his status. Once they are satisfied that he is safe, they take him to their hideout. There they explain what has happened in the past month since Jim has apparently been in a coma. The virus unwittingly unleashed by those activists has decimated the population, turning them into the unthinking brutes we have already seen. Jim is stunned, and all he can think of is trying to make it to his parents. Selena and Mark tell him that this is a bad idea, but they agree to go during the day. Once they get there, Jim is horrified to find that his parents committed suicide. Nonetheless, they decide to take shelter there for the night. Unfortunately, they are attacked, and Mark is found to be bleeding. Not waiting to find out whether it is the result of one of the monsters wounding him, Selena immediately kills him. With her grimly reminding Jim that she will do the same thing to him if need be, they set out into the city once more the next day. In their travels, they spot Christmas lights shining from an apartment building. With another group of infected on their tails, they make it to the building and find a man protecting a staircase who lets them by while he takes care of those chasing them. Once they are safe, their rescuer introduces himself as Frank (Brendan Gleeson). He and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), have barricaded themselves in the building, and are its only survivors. Though there is some debate as to whether Jim and Selena should stay, ultimately they decide to accept Frank’s invitation to do so. The problem, though, becomes where can they find water. Hence, they decide to set out in search of supplies. They follow a radio signal from soldiers near Manchester that claims safety to those who can make it to their location. They find more of the same wreckage, however, when they get to their destination, and Frank becomes infected and is killed soon thereafter. He dies at the hands of those soldiers, who kidnap the remaining three and take them to their base inside a country estate. While there, the commander, Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) informs Jim that he and his men are waiting there for the infected to starve to death. The women are meant to be sexual slaves, their “job” being to repopulate after the danger has passed. Jim gathers Hannah and Selena and attempts to escape, but the women are captured again before they can get off the grounds. Hannah and Selena are forced to put on dresses, while Jim sneaks back to the house at night and frees one of the soldier’s infected comrades. In the ensuing chaos, Jim gets to Selena and Hannah, but is wounded in the process. Still, they are able to get to the car they came in, ram the gates, and get away. Jim comes to in a remote house in the English highlands (Scotland does not have them all, you know). Hannah and Selena have sewn together enough material to spell out “HELLO” in giant letters, which seems to be spotted by a military jet that soon streaks by overhead.
28 Days Later is kind of two different movies in one. This is often a recipe for disaster, but it seems to work well here. The first part, which mainly takes place in London (and you can throw in their departure from that city), is your run-of-the-mill, post-apocalyptic story. Society has gone to pot, and the characters are just trying to survive. The lynchpin in understanding this brave new world is Jim. He is that fish out of water character you need to have things explained to him, which means the movie is explaining them to you. The second part is really the last third of the film, which all takes place at the estate. Especially with the scenes where Jim comes back to save Hannah and Selena, using the infected soldier to distract the others, the film becomes personal, the kind of thing you see in old school slasher flicks. They even got the lighting and shots to line up with this mode of moviemaking. Though these appear to be separate styles, they are linked by the main characters and their quest for survival. There is not a ton of character development, which is understandable given the circumstances.
If you have at least a stereotypical knowledge of the Book of Revelation, you will know that 28 Days Later does not match with what we think the end times will be like. Because of this, many similar movies, blatantly or indirectly, thumb their cinematic noses at the Christian view of these events. You can see it here with the scene in the church when Jim notices smeared on its walls the phrase, “Repent, the end is extremely [expletive] nigh.” No matter how the end comes, such images are used in order to instill fear in the viewer. The Book of Revelation, though, while talking about what these times will be like, is a rather joyous part of the Bible because it means Jesus has returned. It is meant to be a comfort. On this note, I present to you some of the lyrics to a song that you hear later in the film called “Abide With Me,” “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide/ The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide/ When other helpers fail and comforts flee/ Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.” Beautiful. It does not matter if you are fleeing rage monsters or dealing with the cares and woes of everyday life. There is one source of comfort for all of us in times of trouble, and that is God. The film does not speak to this concept, but I at least appreciate the inclusion of this song.
28 Days Later is rated R, and there are some images that may be difficult for many audiences to handle. There is also a scene of full-frontal nudity with Jim. And, of course, there is the violence. As I said in the introduction, there are often things in horror films that this Catholic reviewer prefers not to see, and this one has many of them. What separates it, though, is that the protagonists appear to live in the end. Too often, these movies have the main characters dying. We come to root for them as they conquer a series of challenges, only to meet their demise. That is not my idea of a happy ending. This one better fits that description.