Paced to a crawl in order to intensify the effect of punctuations of violence, and decked out in tricks of editing to manufacture the same result, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later . . ., strenuously written by Alex Garland, is pitched between two genres: horror and science fiction. In this regard it doesn’t compare with Howard Hawks’s—sorry, I mean Christian Nyby’s—The Thing from Another World (1951), the beautifully balanced masterpiece of this category of hybrid. More to the more recent point, Boyle’s film, longer on disgusting gore than real frights, fails to rise to the extraordinary level of Lars von Trier’s Epidemic (1988), although it steals atmosphere from not only that film but the other two wonderful films that flank Epidemic in von Trier’s “European Trilogy,” The Elements of Crime (1984) and Europa (1991). The result is lame, tedious, incoherent, dishonest and, above all, given the dire circumstances the film imagines, cheapened by gestures and gushes of sentimentality. Like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, it’s all Christian violins behind its screen of grimacing masks.
Vaguely, in the recesses of my filmgoing memory, I recall Jack Nicholson’s maiden effort as a film director, Drive, He Said (1971), by way of writer Jeremy Larner, not to mention Robert Creeley, one of whose poems provided the title. In that good little film, a college malcontent (played by Michael Margotta as a young Nicholson) frees test animals from the school’s laboratory. 28 Days Later . . . takes that comedic premise and, adding irony to protest, generates instead a grim result. The released animals in Boyle’s film are infected with a disease that, once given a shot at infecting Brits, turns the latter into crazed, bug-eyed, murderous zombies that vomit blood and need only to get a single drop into a victim’s orifice to make her or him one of its own kind. After a lot of solemnizing, it turns out that the “virus” is nothing more than nature and human nature’s already well-honed propensity to kill its own. One character quips something to the effect that the “epidemic” hasn’t really changed anything, that people killed people before and during the outbreak. This is a film that spells out its heavy message, with sacred and quasi-sacred music being played in the background, and allusion piled on top of allusion (such as the menstrual cycle, to which, for goodness knows what reason, the title refers). Human hatred and violence, then, are what the epidemic amounts to, and indeed violence begets violence as uninfected humans hack to death infected ones to save themselves—the word survival is repeated throughout the film—and to restrict the spread of epidemic. Moreover, some casting choices imply a subcategory of this social disease of hatred and violence: racial bigotry and interracial violence. The film can’t breathe for being so overloaded with portentous meaning.
In the main, the film follows four survivors as they try fleeing to what they hope will be safety: a man, his young daughter, a young man, a young woman. The first is killed after a drop of tainted blood falls in his eye, from a corpse perched above him, giving the film one of its silly allusions to God’s judgment. (The guy was looking up.) At this point the child has lost both mother and father, but apparently is too numbed by the repetition of loss to register grief of any kind. (However, the young woman explains to the young man that the girl feels awful—something she must glean from her common sense.) At the end of the film, when the epidemic has run its course and the threesome are conveniently and unconvincingly rescued,* 56 days after the initial outbreak, the child is discarded like so much junk. Who will give her a home? Garland and Boyle couldn’t care less. The child’s loss of both parents apparently doesn’t bother them either.
The plot takes many twists; the two females become the captives of soldiers who, compelled to rape them in order to have a sense of future (somehow, though, the rapes never occur), and, in the film’s most depraved tack, we are tricked into believing that the young man has become one of the tainted killing zombies when in fact he is only one of the retaliatory untainted killing machines—this, a once gentle English fellow. (We watch him gouge out one of the soldier’s eyes with his fingers and laugh to ourselves, “Out, vile jelly!”) This is all set-up for a one-liner he snaps at the young woman, who is about to kill him, before they kiss. Boyle’s film stoops to manipulating its audience at every turn.
Twenty-eight days later, and then another 28 days later . . . . The action of Boyle’s film should have ended 56 days sooner.
* This, it turns out, is the ending for U.S. consumption only. In the version shown everywhere else, the hero dies and no one rescues the other two.