'John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster... but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man's shaken dominion.' - John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction
There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard's The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher's The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies' 1885 novel After
London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it's still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea - as they do in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.
Boyle's film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach - so he's clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with 'rage', a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected...
28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital - he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted... and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster
has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers... But he's rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with
former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don't hold the monopoly on irrational violence...
28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero's rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one
thing, to begin with Harris' character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they're all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.
I've always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don't get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts
in this movie, which basically blow Boyle's cover: this film isn't made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like
quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.
Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an
army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the 'rage' virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge's stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.
And, if we're honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that's satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before
abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense
of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.