Unchained Malady


Zombie movies are not normally noted for their plausibility, but in this busy season for the CDC and WHO, the basic premise of 28 Days Later is all too conceivable: An incurable mystery virus brings on the end of the world. Its makers may have merely envisioned it as an attempt to revive a moribund horror subgenre, but as headlines have caught up with it in the past year and a half, this scruffy Britflick has acquired the oracular aura of a catch-all allegory. Shot in August and September of 2001, the film was edited during the anthrax scares and released in the U.K. last fall while Londoners were suffering bioterror jitters; it arrives in New York (in theaters June 27) just as the tabloid hysterics have ditched SARS for monkeypox. “It’s weird how it’s taken on all these different resonances,” says director Danny Boyle. “We actually had a lower level of paranoia in mind—a very British one—which was the continued scare over mad cow disease and the sudden foot-and-mouth outbreak. For months, the U.K. was full of fields of burning animals—biblical images of pyres on the horizon, smoke filling the sky.”

Working from a screenplay by novelist Alex Garland, Boyle’s film—his first to see stateside release since the ill-fated, Leo-starring adaptation of Garland’s bestselling The Beach—isolates a robust strain of undead horror in a classic post-apocalyptic scenario. As the title suggests, the four weeks of contagion, panic, and death take place off-camera. 28 Days Later‘s omega man, Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy), wakes from a coma to find London deserted but for a few distressing telltale signs: overturned double-deckers, newspaper headlines (“EVACUATION!”), wads of useless money, and most harrowing of all (not least for a New York audience), a makeshift memorial of missing-person flyers.

That scene was shot before the WTC attacks (it was actually based on photos from the 1995 Kobe earthquake), and Boyle says he was so unnerved to subsequently see near-identical images in Lower Manhattan that he considered editing it out. Garland says the viral dread of recent months has left him queasy about promoting the film: “I’m uncomfortable that we might effectively be selling it on a series of very unfortunate coincidences. But if we released it in 1985, it would have been HIV. In 1920, it could have been syphilis or polio. It’s not like anything has substantially changed. People get incredibly zoned in, understandably—I do too—and they perceive something as new when it isn’t.”

Indeed, as a genre exercise, 28 Days Later is not so much timely as timeless—a canny mash-up of horror tropes, many of them from George Romero movies (Day of the Dead and The Crazies in particular). Garland also notes the importance of British influences: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (“every schoolboy reads it”) and J.G. Ballard’s catastrophic surrealism. “We were often aiming for atmosphere and scenic coherency at the expense of logic,” says Garland. “That’s also a rationalization, of course, because it was sometimes budgetary concerns. When Jim’s walking through London, we didn’t fill up the place with dead bodies and abandoned cars, partly because it’s more atmospheric and partly because we couldn’t afford to.”

At a cost of just $10 million (digital video, no marquee names), 28 Days Later is geared for maximum profit—Fox Searchlight is counterprogramming it as a cult item with summer blockbuster potential. It’s fitting that the movie is going up against The Hulk‘s tortured exercise in anger management; Boyle and Garland’s virus is simply a concentrated, highly contagious form of rage—the infected turn homicidally rabid within seconds. The “psychological virus” allows Garland to revisit the lofty Nature of Man riffs that he smuggled into The Beach; 28 Days Later concludes, none too surprisingly, that you don’t need to be infected to act like a monster. “A zombie film is a good vehicle for certain ideas,” he notes. “It stops you from getting too pretentious.”

While lofty behemoths like The Hulk and The Matrix wax oedipal and existential, 28 Days Later never neglects its zombie-flick obligations. Boyle gives the attack sequences a savage immediacy. His monsters, barely related to the stiffly lumbering undead of countless old B-movies, move like track athletes. “Zombies have run the whole cultural arc—they’re on South Park,” says Boyle. “You have to reinvent them, and we had this idea of speed. These video cameras can capture very high-contrast fast motion; they snatch at the image, so you get this slightly unreliable thing coming at you. You can’t quite tell how fast it’s moving, how quickly it’ll be on you.”

Not purely a cost-cutting measure here, DV is also a logical aesthetic fit. The degraded images convey a sense of blasted aftermath, and Boyle even encouraged his crew to engage in a bit of role-play. “The idea was that these cameras would survive,” he says. “At one point, we were going to have Jim pick up a camera and look back at what someone had recorded. In a funny way, as a crew we could imagine that we were survivors as well, working with minimal equipment.” It didn’t hurt that said equipment was being wielded by the virtuosic Anthony Dod Mantle, the director of photography on Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration, regarded by many as the most inventive and resourceful of videographers. “He has a real love-hate relationship with the medium,” Boyle says of Mantle. “He knows how to get the best out of it because he understands and embraces the limitations.”

Boyle himself seems more at ease these days with his limitations: “I admire big movies, but you have to acknowledge what brings out the best in you.” Since The Beach (which was “like trying to steer an oil tanker”), he’s completed two DV quickies for the BBC. He’s pondering a return to the scene of his greatest triumph—there are tentative plans to adapt Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting sequel, Porno—but in the meantime is in post-production on another small-scale project with ostensibly local concerns, Millions, about two boys who discover a bag of sterling, days before the U.K. switches to the euro: “It’s about saying goodbye, how important that can be particularly for the British. We love hanging on to the past here.”

Garland is equally keen to close the book on The Beach. “The film is shit,” he deadpans. “No, seriously, it’s not mine to look back on. I watched it happening, but I didn’t feel a connection.” He was equally disengaged from the adaptation of his second novel, the Manila-set Tesseract (directed by the Bangkok-based Oxide Pang). “That’s a more personal book and I’m less comfortable with it being a film.” (The tape of the finished product has been sitting in his London flat, unwatched, for weeks.) For Garland, 28 Days Later was an opportunity to deflect third-novel pressures (London’s Observer ran a news item two years ago headlined “Plot Dries Up as Beach Writer Hits Writer’s Block”) and collaborate more substantially in a feature film: “[Producer] Andrew [Macdonald] says Danny works the way he does because of his background in theater, where the writer gets involved. I think it’s because at heart he’s an old socialist.”

Boyle and Garland spent a lot of time discussing their approach to violence—something that in Garland’s books he’s careful to ensure is “not sexy but a bit pathetic.” It’s funny to hear the writer talk about the representation of violence in what is essentially a midnight-movie gorefest. “I think the cinematic depiction of violence is, in its default state, semi-pornographic,” he says. They both decided the best way to desensationalize the bloodshed was to approximate the texture of news footage, but Garland hesitates to comment on the strategy’s success: “I’m always interested in how writers and directors can know with such confidence the effect they have on audiences. You produce this stuff, and suddenly you’re an expert. I’m completely open to the idea that 28 Days Later is an immoral, stupid film. I mean, how the hell would I know?”

In any case, it’s not so much the ruptured torsos and gouged eyeballs as the vacuums of deathly quiet that lodge in the mind. Jim’s dazed stroll through desolate central London is the primal scene that haunts the movie—it’s also, Boyle says, among the most logistically daunting sequences he’s shot. “You can’t close off streets in London, so we just showed up very early and asked motorists to stop. We used between six and 10 cameras—the great thing about the technology is that you can leave it running, and it doesn’t cost anything. We thought we’d have to do a lot of digital painting, but all we had to do was paint out traffic lights.” The result is one of cinema’s most potent expressions of the illicit ultimate-survivor fantasy—the last man standing, horribly and thrillingly alone. “Wish fulfillment is the key,” says Garland. “People who live in cities really want to see them empty.”

Related Article:

Michael Atkinson’s review of 28 Days Later