Danny Boyle is one of Britain’s hottest directors right now, with the double whammy of winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and the small matter of directing the Olympics opening ceremony. Whereas other high profile Brits often make the jump to Hollywood (yes, Christopher Nolan, I mean you), Boyle has continued to make home-grown films, shooting on location in London and at such venues as 3 Mills Studios. Furthermore, Boyle has maintained his distinctive approach to filmmaking, despite the grandeur of the Oscars and the Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, is a psychological thriller which focuses upon three characters, and looks to have the same visceral, gritty approach that he established in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Boyle is a particular advocate of digital film, used to great effect in his Boyle’s foray into horror with 28 Days Later…. Shot on DV, 28 Days Later… tells the story of a Britain devastated by a virus that turns people into savage beasts, presented in a grainy image with an immediate, snatched quality. In the early scenes as Jim (Cillian Murphy) searches the eerie, deserted streets of London, the image has a tactile quality, drawing us further into Jim’s situation, feeling as well as seeing and hearing what he encounters. The processing of the image also feels underdone (though it almost certainly is not), which adds to the sense of immediacy.
The immediacy of the digital image expresses the down-to-earth level of the film as a whole. Although the film does not technically feature zombies, because the “Infected” are not dead, the post-apocalyptic tone of survivors holding onto existence owes much to the zombie film tradition, best demonstrated in the films of George A. Romero. Like Romero, Boyle’s non-zombie zombie film has political undertones, beginning with the opening shots that consist of news footage of violent acts: riots, police brutality, war. Presented on a series of screens before a laboratory chimpanzee, these initial images express humanity’s inhumanity, in contrast to the passive ape that is unaffected by the violence. This conceit runs through the whole film, as we are repeatedly shown the savagery and inhumanity of humans in a variety of forms.
The most obvious form of this inhumanity is, of course, the Infected, transformed by the Rage virus into rampaging beasts. Another form is the survivors, especially Selena (Naomie Harris), who has abandoned sympathy and compassion in favour of a ruthless survival wish, which she describes as willing to kill anyone infected “in a heartbeat”. Although initially dazed and confused, Jim eventually morphs into a savage creature himself, brutally killing an opponent (who is not Infected) by driving his thumbs into the other man’s eyes. Savagery is intrinsic in humans, the film suggests, all it takes is a little push.
Most interesting are the soldiers that Jim, Selena, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) travel north to reach. Commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone), the soldiers imprison Selena and Hannah as concubines to repopulate the human race, believing that they are the last survivors. Just as the Infected are reduced to basic animal ferocity, so have the soldiers reverted to reproductive desire. Major West describes their situation in clinical terms, saying that his men feared they would simply die and that would be the end of humanity, so he “promised them women”. What is more revealing, though, is what West says about all the killing:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
In other words, the Rage has not made any major difference. His perspective indicates that whether Infected or not, people kill people. The film plays out this belief, as almost everyone kills at least once. The exception is the teenage Hannah, the innocent child, who Selena will do anything to protect, even drugging Hannah so that she is oblivious to the impending rape. 28 Days Later… is post-apocalyptic in the sense of being post-civilisation – as the Joker said: “When the chips are down, these ‘civilised’ people, they’ll eat each other”.
The first time I saw 28 Days Later…, I thought the depravity of the soldiers was the first appearance of humanity’s inhumanity beyond the Infected, but on a second viewing I realised that the theme is there from the beginning (I missed the very opening first time around). The activists who break into the laboratory in the first scene see themselves as humanitarian by ending animal research that they view as torture. Equally, the scientists performing the experiments see their research as humanitarian. Nonetheless, the scientists have still harmed the chimps by infecting them with Rage, and the activists cause harm by ignoring the warnings the chimps. The scientist (David Schneider) urges the activists to kill the woman who is infected and then tries himself, demonstrating the swiftness with which “civilisation” is dropped. It is hardly surprising that civilisation becomes anarchy in just four weeks, if human savagery is awakened so easily. All that is left are random acts of kindness, such as Selena and Mark (Noah Huntley) rescuing Jim, Frank protecting Jim and Selena, Jim returning to the military headquarters to save Selena and Hannah.
What is especially interesting about the humanity that is left after the spread of Infection is where it is not found – as indicated in the title of this post, salvation is searched for in the wrong places. I use the term salvation deliberately, because the broadcast put out by Major West emphasises salvation, and his base turns out to be anything but. During Jim’s initial search of London, he goes into a church, presumably in search of salvation. Instead he finds the building filled with people, who initially seem dead (indeed, I wondered if there had been a mass suicide). But when he calls to them, they reveal themselves to be Infected. A priest emerges from a doorway and staggers towards Jim, who backs away before knocking the priest to the floor and running away. A church and an army base promising salvation prove to be dangerous, and there are various scenes that feature choral music reminiscent of church choirs. During the survivors’ journey from London to Manchester, they stop to rest at an old monastery, in one of the film’s few peaceful moments. There is little in the way of peace or mercy in Boyle’s blood-stained Britain, but a spiritual element nonetheless runs throughout 28 Days Later…
What we see in 28 Days Later… is a loss of the soul, humanity’s soul consumed by the Rage, reducing most of the population to bloodthirsty animals. For those who survive, the soul is ignored in the battle for survival. Selena’s lack of sympathy and compassion suggests a containment of her soul, which is weakened over the course of the film. Not that a weakening of her soul’s containment means Selena herself weakens – she remains strong and assertive throughout, if anything gaining further strength in her desire to protect Hannah and save Jim after he is shot. Jim never becomes as cold as her, providing the film’s only comic relief with blackly humorous comments about their situation. His discovery of West’s plans for Selena and Hannah leads to complete rejection of the soldiers, and West orders his death as well as that of Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell clings to some form of faith which prompts West to ask why Farrell joined the army in the first place, which Farrell does not answer. What place does faith have when we are abandoned? Although Jim does maintain sympathy in his compassionate quest to rescue the women, he still resorts to complete savagery in order to do so. Does he lose his soul as well, or is the soul somehow compatible with savagery? This is one of several spiritual questions the film poses.
Horror cinema is often used to express political, social and moral issues, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, male fear of pregnancy in Alien, infection in Nosferatu. 28 Days Later… explores spiritual questions relating to the durability of the soul and where to find salvation. Institutions like the church and the army prove to be as savage as the world around them, salvation found only in individual compassion and sympathy. It is perhaps fitting that the message our heroes stretch over the grass at the end of the film says “HELLO” rather than “HELP” – Jim, Selena and Hannah are connected to each other, and reach out to make further connections with others.