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28 Days Later

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
28 Days Later
from Film Forum, 07/10/03

Many will assume that 28 Days Later is just a nasty horror film. But many critics in the mainstream and religious press are discovering that Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) had a lot on his mind while he assembled this low-budget, high-tension thriller about zombies and the apocalypse.

It begins as scientists are performing cruel experiments on monkeys, forcing them to watch newsreel highlights of the atrocities that human beings visit upon each other. The tests lead to an outbreak of a virus appropriately named "Rage." Rage takes over its host organisms and reduces them to barbaric animalistic behavior. In short, it makes them murderous zombies.

When our hero, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up in a London hospital, he discovers that the zombies have turned the city into a ghost town. He goes to a church for help, only to find the congregation slaughtered and bloodthirsty monsters lying in wait for him. He learns that attacks are not the only danger: contact with a mere drop of blood from the infected can render a man defenseless against the disease. Running for his life, Jim stumbles onto some survivors who teach him how to fight the heartless monsters. Together, they strike out to learn the truth behind the rumors of a military outpost that offers refuge for the uninfected. What they learn is hard to accept—that sin is inescapable and even if the zombies are kept at bay, evil will rise in the human heart and take on new forms.

Be warned: 28 Days Later is extremely violent and, at times, bloody enough to send the squeamish running for the exits.

Despite of its disturbing visions and fantastic premise, however, Boyle's film has critics examining it as a relevant tale for the era of SARS, AIDS, the West Nile Virus, and epidemics of civil unrest. Charles Mudede of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger writes, "No book or painting could have captured the late '90s better than The Matrix; no sonata or sculpture could have better captured the post-Iraq War 2 mood than X2. If X2 got to the terrifying heart of the days leading to our most recent war, then 28 Days Later got to the heart of SARS. True, SARS came about after 28 Days Later was made (2002), but the environment that made the disease all the rage for the better part of the first half of 2003 is the very same environment that makes 28 Days Later the best horror film of our time."

The heroes in 28 Days need more than humanitarian aid and a Bono-led fundraiser—they need Buffy the Zombie Slayer. And yet, this outrageous plot poses a familiar problem. The news regularly reports of the sufferings of large populations, sufferings that go unheeded and unhelped by their governments, while the international community turns its back on the problem.

The rapid spread of the disease seems troublingly plausible, and yet its symptoms suggest something more than a virus. The threat could be interpreted as an epidemic of urban paranoia and uncontrollable anger as well. The team of survivors becomes desperate, eager to wall themselves in against the threats of a violent populace. This could remind us of Africa, where millions are dying and in need of international aid, or it might sound like the L.A. riots.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the film is this: A response to evil that is merely rational and forceful, lacking love and compassion, will lead to whole new atrocities. The persistence of sacred music in the film's soundtrack suggests that we may have to look beyond military might and appeal to the powers of heaven.

Following hard on the heels of Changing Lanes, Punch-drunk Love, Anger Management, and The Hulk, Boyle's film is the latest in what seems an increasing cinematic focus on anger. Can you think of any other films that effectively explore the problems of urban anger, fear, and paranoia? Let me know.

>Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a horrifically violent, apocalyptic treatment on rage and human survival in the face of destructive chaos." He concludes that it's "not for the squeamish or skittish," but it is meaningful. "What sets 28 Days Later apart from the typical zombie/horror B-movie fare is its examination of human nature."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Many who will be critical of this movie for its style without ever understanding the intent of the director and writers. [This is] a well-thought-out supernatural thriller that calls into question the willingness of any of us to resort to evil actions or change the surroundings to bring about a better world around us."

Heather Mann (Relevant) says that the movie "asks things of an audience that few movies have done for 20 or 30 years. It is quiet and spare in the way that many 1970s sci-fi movies were. Instead of showcasing gratuitous gore and mind-numbing action, this movie has thinking characters who ask the audience to think."

Gareth Von Kallenbach (Phantom Tollbooth) calls the film "a very ambitious and unsettling work. 28 Days … is at times a very violent film that shows the inner rage that many believe lurks inside all of us. It seems that Boyle is drawn to stories that show the darker side of the soul and … how ordinary benevolent people can be driven to extreme actions when pushed."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) writes, "The movie's strong moral worldview is spoiled by humanist elements, very strong foul language, gory violence, and graphic, but non-sexual, male nudity."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Underneath the prolific bloodshed, the film … attempts to honestly, albeit heavy-handedly, raise philosophical questions about humanity's impulse toward aggression. Boyle, however, chooses to approach them from a secular, evolutionary stance, relying on the vernacular of biology and psychology, while refraining from religious concepts like original sin."

Elsewhere, mainstream critics are exploring the film's evocative themes and praising it as a surprisingly effective thriller.


Hulking Rage

An epidemic of anger at the cineplex.

by Jeffrey Overstreet
Books & Culture, September/October 2003