Rated R, mostly for brutal murder and rape. There's drug abuse with a child and I forgot mostly how much nudity was in this movie. Danny Boyle is really good at making things so visceral that it becomes really, really uncomfortable. The volume levels in this movie are alarming. A good chunk of the movie is painfully quiet only to startle its audience with blaring screams and guitar riffs. It's a very R-rated R movie.
DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle
It was never really my intention to watch 28 Days Later during a worldwide quarantine. There's actually been too much crossover with the misery outside in terms of my media selection. But it was literally the next movie in my Fox Searchlight box set and I always remembered liking this movie, so I decided to give it another go. The long and short is that the movie is still a great time. in some ways, it's better than I remember. In some ways, it's worse.
I'm going to cover the "worse" thing first. Shaun of the Dead references the stupidity of this movie quite a bit. I always thought it was the one bummer part of Shaun of the Dead because I consider that to be one of my favorite movies. But maybe Edgar Wright and his team were right. The comment they made about 28 Days Later might be accurate. It seems really nitpicky, but it actually holds a little weight. I'm referring to, of course, the Rage-Infected monkeys. The opening of this movie is actually pretty dumb. I partially give it a pass because the rest of the movie holds up. But Danny Boyle is desperately trying to say something here that doesn't really have a lot of weight. The opening of the film shows these monkeys forced to watch cruelty. Mirroring the conditioning that Alex receives in A Clockwork Orange, these monkeys are the product of our hubris. They are a commentary on the fact that, if anything horrible happens to us, it is 1) our defining characteristic to breed violence and 2) our own fault. It's a good lesson with a clumsy execution. I want this message to work. I really do. I get, from Boyle's perspective, that his films are meant to have themes that challenge us as people. But the movie already deals with a lot. This idea is really lost in the barrage of other concepts that the movie tossing around. When that concept is lost, it really just comes across as silly and almost like a lyric from a heavy metal emo song. Conceptually cool, but the rest of the film makes it look phenomenally stupid. I don't know why I didn't pick up on it before. Probably because I was in college and loved Moulin Rouge!, so subtlety was completely lost on me.
There's going to be a lot of talk about zombies in this and the role of zombies. I just finished a whole presentation on Monster Theory, so it's probably going to show up a bit. The Walking Dead has so influenced this generations understanding of the role of the monster. After all, I think that there's straight up a line where maybe Rick says, "We are the Walking Dead". It doesn't get any more on the nose than that. Romero is clearly a fan of allegory. It's kind of what ends up hindering him the deeper he got into his films. The allegories of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are so spectacular that I got the vibe that he wanted to recapture that magic anyway he could. The one thing that zombie movies need to understand that zombies aren't necessarily the antagonists. They are part of the setting.
When zombies become part of the setting, it does a bunch of things that 28 Days Later totally gets. If we're looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, shelter is so fundamental to people that complex ideas like emotion and love become deprioritized. This means that characters, who are still experiencing these moments, can't include reason and logic in those emotions. Secondly, if the zombies are part of the background and the setting, another antagonist must step in. I think in 2002 when I was watching this movie on repeat, I didn't really understand why the soldiers were in the movie. I thought zombies were cool and "Didn't this movie look cool with its VHS chic?" That's it. That's the extent of my thought process. But the human beings are far more telling of the evils of a zombie apocalypse. Boyle is extremely critical of both people and the military. There's something wired into soldiers that parallels the zombie rage that's going on throughout the story. (Again, I think rage is dumb, but I can't deny the connection that Boyle is making.) Boyle's commentary on the soldier might make some people angry, but he's also making a pretty solid point. For someone's career, they're taught absolute violence and absolute trust. This is fine when there is a strict sense of rules and morality provided to people trained to kill. The military, besides training soldiers to be weapons of war (and, to satisfy the political spectrum, bringing peace and civilization to ravaged countries), also provides for the needs of the individual. It's very dependent on a great system being in place. However, when that system collapses, something very scary happens.
The soldiers in 28 Days Later are the new zombies. We don't associate them with the zombies (I know the movie uses the word "infected", but I don't care that I'm using the shorthand) because they speak and are originally introduced as characters providing hope. But there's something really telling seeing the zombie soldier chained up on the fence. That image is that crossover into metaphor. This was a man who probably did a lot of good. But without a morality system, this character becomes something really problematic. Watching the way that the soldiers act to simple hierarchy of needs once again is really telling to what is happening in the overall story. These characters needs are in different places. With the survivors, Jim, Selena, and Hannah, they are there for survival. There's no thinking beyond that point. It's kind of why the kiss happens when it doesn't really make a lot of sense that these two would be into each other. There's no logic. But the soldiers have shelter, food, and a rudimentary sense of security. (Admittedly, that sense of security is misplaced, but that's another story.) But the survivors have the potential to have all of their needs met, given time. The more that they work together, the closer that they get to having their needs met. Discovering the grocery store is something that satisfies one of those needs, allowing Jim and Selena to explore that sense of intimacy. But the soldiers never have a chance for having that sense of intimacy met, so they become toxic and like the zombies.
This doesn't let them off the hook morally. If anything, it's quite damning for these people. Because they aren't willing to sacrifice any other of their needs (like becoming a civilian and sacrificing security), they aggressively hoard something horrible within themselves. There's actually the example of the one solider who has a clear head on his shoulders. He becomes this voice for the potential of the solider. Soldiers, as individuals, are good people. However, if that individual cannot recognize his dependence on the institution, he becomes something far more evil. Boyle doesn't make movies just for fun. These characters are something far more interesting and insidious than just scary bad guys who become raping and killing machines. They are the real zombies in the story because they can't change their traits any more than the zombies that acts as foils to these characters.
So, yeah, rage infected monkeys are dumb. But there's something that Danny Boyle is trying to do with that idea that could work if it was massaged a little more. There's a lot going on with this story. It adds to the greater narrative of the canon of zombie stories and their goals. Sure, the movie might look different than some of the other films in the fraternity of zombie films, but it uses satire as a means to comment on a war-obsessed 21st century.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.