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07 June 2006

28 Days Later (2002)

Cillian Murphy (Jim), Naomie Harris (Selena), Christopher Eccleston (Maj. West), Brendan Gleeson (Frank)

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting)

From IMDB: "A powerful virus escapes from a British research facility. Transmitted in a drop of blood and devastating in seconds, the virus locks those infected into a permanent state of murderous rage. Within 28 days the country is overwhelmed and a handful of survivors begin their attempts to salvage a future."

I was blown away the first time I saw this film, about two years ago, primarily because of the unique Lord of the Flies aspect. Many films have portrayed zombies, monsters, disease, and other apocalyptic scenarios, but few I have worked up the stomach to see truly represent the horror of human nature to this extent. This is not a zombie tale but an allegorical examination into the horrors of human nature when it is stripped of civilization.

But I shall start at the beginning. The memorable scenes of Jim, Cillian Murphy, walking around deserted London are made all the more powerful for two reasons. First, I have walked those streets beneath Big Ben and across the Thames, feeling the press of huge masses of people, thus the utter absence of any single individual makes for riveting visuals. Second, the accompanying soundtrack is mind-numbingly effective. As Jim slowly comes to terms with what he sees -– he is completely alone in one of the world's biggest cities –- the music builds from a few simple notes to a thundering, warped assault. Fantastic.

Jim's development as a character is aided tremendously by Cillian Murphy's performance. He begins as the most helpless of all creatures: naked and wounded. Murphy's wide eyes and ambling gait demonstrate his confusion. He is alone, malnourished, and completely ignorant of what has taken place in the previous four weeks. By film's end, however, when Jim takes the life of Corporal Mitchell, Murphy is hard, agile, keen-eyed, and crafty. Jim transforms from harmless to deadly. His commitment to his new family, the only people he has left, makes him an avenger.

Who knew that Murphy, a skinny Irishman, could be an action hero? And I love that his Irishness is out in full force here -– no homogenized pseudo-British accent. He is lovely.

The techniques Boyle uses to demonstrate Jim's evolution are impressive. Some viewers might find them too obvious or blunt, but I liked the effect. Basically, when Jim begins to assert himself among the soldiers, Boyle portrays Murphy as he had been portraying zombies: quick pans, a blur in front of the camera, vacant eyes, blink-fast movements. All of those jumpy scary bits had been reserved for zombies, but when Jim becomes the hunter, he is treated to the same level of intense camera work. No wonder, then, that Selena and Hannah mistake Jim for one of the infected. Visually, Boyle allowed him to become one.

Major West, played by the swaggering and commanding Christopher Eccleston, suggests that there is little difference between the 28 days of infection and the 28 days before that –- just people killing people. The beastly, hard, brutal experiences that these characters inflict upon each other in the barracks proves that, but with a minor distinction. No infection made Jim kill; his loyalty to his friends did. No infection made the men hungry for women; their isolation and lust did. Infection, a bunch of zombies running around eating people for no reason, seems an abomination only because it is senseless. We can cheer the heroes when they kill with good reason and boo the villains when they kill for sport, but creepy bastards who kill without motivation...that is truly terrifying.

DVD note: I much prefer the grim alternate ending (intellectually, and for the sake of girl power), but my adoration of happily ever afters will not let me endorse it wholeheartedly. The alternative ending is particularly satisfying with regard to the character of Selena, Jim's rescuer and eventual love interest. Unlike Jim, her transformation from ordinary person to survivor took place during the initial 28 days of infection, outside of the scope of the film. Instead, her transformation is a gentle softening because of her relationships with Jim and Hannah. The original ending demonstrates that she can and wants to become a person again, to live for a future. The alternate ending proves that her brief moments of softness belied the hard, capable woman she will always remain.

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