Movie Review: 28 Days Later

This was originally written in 2008.

(Failed) Application Review of a Blu-ray Disc Review requested by

Twentieth Century Fox / 2002 / 113 Minutes / R Street Date: October 9, 2007

Think The Omega Man meets George Romero, but much better than that fusion suggests. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Sunshine) and screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine) bring a needed infusion of intelligence and genuinely disturbing violence to a genre whose last iteration before 28 Days was the silly Resident Evil.

The story is fairly straightforward. A group of animal rights activist release chimpanzees infected with a ‘rage’ virus. It quickly jumps to humans and then spreads rapidly throughout Britain. The ‘infected’ are extremely violent, and in one of great twists for the genre, they run, even when they are on fire. This makes them far more terrifying than most zombies on film. Kudos to Boyle for this innovation, and as a device it shows up in later zombie films like the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the Resident Evil sequels. Jim, the protagonist (Cillian Murphy – Red Eye, Sunshine), awakens in a hospital 28 days after the infection began. He had been in a coma and so survives. He wanders about deserted London bewildered, searching for someone. These are the most potent scenes in the film. Seeing an enormous city like London simply empty is a powerful, frightening image, especially in the wake of 9/11. That Boyle got the municipal government to help him shut down central sections of this huge city is a testament to his commitment to the final product on meager $8 million budget.

Further credit is due for intellectually and emotionally unnerving the viewer. A disease outbreak is a realistic premise. So the emptiness and loneliness of the metropolis is far more effective and upsetting than the ‘gotcha’ and ‘boo!’ sequences with a loud musical cue so common to horror films. This is intelligent horror. Shortly Jim meets the infected, and we see them maniacally chase him for the first time. He is then saved by two other survivors, one of whom is Celina (Naomi Harris, the vodoo witch in the Pirates 2 and 3). Jim then seeks out his parents, who have died. Their home is warm, comfortably middle class and familiar, which significantly ramps up the fright value of the infected’s attack within their home. Again Boyle uses reliably social imagery – a comfortable home – to disturb the viewer more believably than any psychopath carrying an ax. Jim and Celina then discover a father (Brendan Gleeson – Gangs of New York, Troy) and his daughter (Megan Harris).

A signal suggesting a cure for infection sets them on the road to an army base. Along the way, they incipient family enjoys a brief idyll in a green countryside, a nice breather for the audience, and suggestive of hope in the future. Everything falls apart when they arrive at the base. The soldiers are unruly and intend to rape Celina and the daughter in order to begin repopulation. Jim fights back, and the film slides, unfortunately, into an action mode at the end. Normal, bashful Jim too quickly becomes a lethal foe against trained soldiers. Gleeson’s character having died earlier, the trio escapes.

This is a smart film, particularly for a genre noted for stupidities like splitting up without flashlights to search for the killer. The premise is believable, and there is a delicious irony in showing animal rights activists, with which the audience may sympathize, setting off the pandemic. The group reacts in mostly believable ways to the situation. The violence, while severe and bloody, is not gratuitous. The infected are grotesque and highly violent, so the violence necessary to defeat them reflects that. Only the end really disappoints. The soldiers, accustomed to strict discipline, too quickly become rowdy hooligans, and Jim’s rapid mutation into a powerful killer is unbelievable. Boyle’s point is to parallel our own inhumanity to the infected, but honestly, I’d take the soldiers over the infected anyday. This just didn’t work well for me, nor did the rescue happy ending.

Video: How Does the Disc Look?

Yikes! If you own the DVD, you might rather invest in a good-upscaler instead of this disc. The differences will be negligible. The film was shot entirely (but for the last few minutes) on hand-held digital video, and it really shows. Boyle apparently even worsened the already hazy picture in post-production in order to achieve a ‘gritty urban realism,’ as he says in the commentary. This does not move me I must say. Grit, herky jerky camera angles, dropped frames, etc. strike me as gimmicky (Gladiator, Assault on Precinct 13 remake). Why develop better photography if you won’t use? If it this is the director’s intent, then so be it, but quite honestly it shouldn’t be. Image detail is little better than VHS in someplaces. Try to look at Jim’s face at 7:18., for example. Colors are punchier, one of BD’s big advantages over DVD, and high bit rate (37kps) reduces the most glaring artifacts (halos) of the DVD. But depth of perception isn’t much better. The image looks ‘flatter’ than most BDs. The aspect ratio is 1.85.

Audio: How does the disc sound?

The audio is a vast improvement over the video. Fox has included its typical DTS-HD MA track, an improvement over the DVD’s Dolby Digital. It is rich and full. The soundfield is well-used in scenes with gunfire and the rage of the infected, including good use of the LFE. The balance is solid, and dialogue very audible. Most impressive to me was the music by John Murphy. It is creepy, atmospheric, and fits well the film’s gloomy tone. Again, unlike many horror movies it lacks the cheap ‘gotcha’ music cues to make the audience jump. Instead the loneliness and gloom of this post-apocalyptic world is well conveyed in the steady, disturbing music. Spanish and French Dolby 5.1 track are included, as are subtitles in Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. The commentary is in 2.0 Dolby Digital.

Supplements: What Goodies Are There?

Fox has finally started included supplements on its BDs, and hopefully, with the conclusion of the format war, these will expand. The supplements are ported over from the DVD, plus an alternate dream sequence ending. They are not rendered in 16×9, 1080p, except for one alternate ending and the trailers. The commentary is quite good. Boyle and Garland provide lots of information, and to their credit, admit to plot holes, cheap effects, moments of bad writing, etc. This is not the usual cheerleading or bland technical commentaries (like the Star Wars commentaries, e.g.), nor was it rambling inanity à la Resident Evil. They are not drunk, bored, or silent for long stretches, and they even provide commentary on the deleted scenes and alternate endings. Well done. The deleted scenes are well presented, but clearly not cleaned up (as on the Star Wars discs). Good explanations for cutting them were provided, and none are really necessary or missed, but for the sequence on the medical train. This would have made a solid edition, and the commentators explain why it was cut. The alternate endings are pretty interesting and bleaker than the theatrical cut. Two include Jim’s death from a gunshot wound included in the theatrical cut. I found that more realistic than the current ‘happy ending,’ but again the directors explain why it was not chosen. Also included is a ‘radical alternate ending,’ that while interesting, is clearly infeasible. The dream ending is simply bizarre.

The other supplements are less useful. A music video (6 min.) by Jacknife Lee is included. A compilation of film scenes set to bland repetitive rock, I found it more promotional than good. Trailers include two for the film, plus the sequel, Sunshine, Alien vs. Predator, and From Hell. The storyboards (2 mins.), production picture gallery (18 mins.), plus an on-set polaroid photogallery (4mins.) are mildly interesting, and again to Boyle’s credit, he narrates them, but they bored me after awhile. Finally comes the requisite making of (24 mins.), a rather bizarre piece. The first half has nothing to do with production but is a collection of scientists and ‘futurists’ telling us how infectious diseases are far more prevalent than we think, and that a pandemic like the one is film is around the corner. Even Boyle, to his discredit, joins in. Not since the Black Death have we seen anything like the scale of death found in this film. I found this exploitative and rather ridiculous. The second half is actually the making of. It is reasonably thorough, although I dislike these because they deconstruct the effects that undermine my willing suspension of disbelief. I’d rather think the zombies were real than watch them get made up.

Final Thoughts

I am not a great fan of the zombie genre, so the running, psychotic zombies was not treason. Genre aficionados will disagree. Rather I found it intelligent, reasonably believable horror, a genuine rarity. The performances are solid, and the low celebrity profile of the actors increases the realism. The music is powerful and fitting. The script is smart; the dialogue and character action believable. The video is hard to recommend, but its poor quality reflects directorial choice, not a BD failure. But the audio is excellent, and the supplements, especially the commentaries, show care. They are not just promo fluff. Recommended for those who don’t already own the DVD.

Buy Guide Video: 5/10 Audio: 8/10 Extras: 3/5 ROM: 0/5 Value: 4/5 for non-owners of the DVD; 2/5 for owners

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