Four Frames – 28 Days Later (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. To tie in with Frightfest, The Big Picture is running a series of horror-related features and reviews. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Danny Boyle’s 2002 horror classic 28 Days Later.

The zombie film was, to excuse the pun, a sub-genre that had flatlined at the turn of the century.

Movies thrown together by hacks with low budgets and even lower ambitions had consigned the undead to the DVD shelves. What this sub-section of horror needed was an injection of life and British genre-spanning director Danny Boyle was the man to administer it.

28 Days LaterBoyle’s raw and unsettling 28 Days Later acknowledges its debt to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy while striking out on its own with an all-too plausible apocalyptic nightmare that, as the director has argued, could happen next Wednesday.

Four weeks after anti-vivisectionists uncage an infected monkey from a research lab and unwittingly unleash the highly contagious ‘Rage’ virus, Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma in a deserted London hospital.

Confusion gives way to a queasy disbelief as he wanders the streets of a seemingly depopulated city that has evidently suffered some sort of cataclysm. A glance at a newspaper featuring the headline ‘Evacuation’ reinforces this, but Jim has no comprehension of the threat he faces.

28 Days LaterTo overcome the challenge of depicting an abandoned London, police closed roads at 4am to allow filming to take place, although only for an hour so as not to incur the Rage-like ire of drivers. The rewards can be seen on screen in what has rightly become one of modern horror’s most iconic scenes.

What gives the scene an even more resonant eeriness is its stillness. London has rarely looked more serene or threatening thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle’s urgent DV cinematography, while the escalating horror that Jim and the audience experience as he stumbles further into the city is amplified by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s apocalyptic post-rock.

28 Days LaterThere are clever touches, such as when Jim feverishly picks up a pile of banknotes, little realising just how worthless they now are. Likewise, a shot of Jim dwarfed by a giant advertising billboard showing smiling, healthy models is a blackly ironic antithesis of what’s to come.

While the nods to the Dead trilogy are clear, the threat of infected, rather than undead, owes more to Romero’s cult classic The Crazies (1973), in which the citizens of a small American town are sent into a homicidal rage after being contaminated with an infectious disease.

The film is also heavily indebted to John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, in particular when Jim awakens in the deserted hospital (a scene subsequently lifted by TV show The Walking Dead).

28 Days LaterJust as 28 Days Later has borrowed from past masters, so too have others stolen from Boyle’s horror classic, most notably the concept of the ‘fast zombie’ that has shown up in Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead (2004) remake, Zombieland (2009) and, more recently, the mega-budget World War Z (2013).

As the world entered a dark new chapter post 9/11, 28 Days Later’s horrific vision of a world turned upside down reflected our fears of just how precarious social order actually is.

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8 comments

  1. Tom · August 23, 2014

    Very very chilling closing thought man, but goodness I have to agree with it man. The times we live in right now are borderline nightmarish. Nah, they pretty much are.

    I’ll have to go and revisit 28 Days Later man, this was a very effective horror when I first saw it, I do remember that. And I remember a few sequences in particular that were really just. . .difficult to watch. But for all the right reasons. Gotta give credit to Boyle for just making the best out of everything. Great stuff

    • Three Rows Back · August 29, 2014

      Cheers Tom! Sorry for the delay in coming back to you. Yeah, it’s a difficult viewing experience more than 10 years on. The DV camerawork adds a documentary feel and the collapse of society is a thought that’s both fascinating and utterly chilling.

  2. ruth · August 24, 2014

    As you know I’m not into zombies or horror movies in general but I’ve seen and loved this one! That scene by the London bridge is so iconic, it’s perhaps one of my faves from Boyle and one of my fave Cillian Murphy performances too.

    • Three Rows Back · August 29, 2014

      Wow, I’m pleasantly surprised you loved this! That scene has long stayed in my mind; it has a resonance that horror movies don’t usually possess.

  3. Nick Powell · August 24, 2014

    Great write-up and focus on one of my favorite films. The initial sequence with Jim waking up I think is one of the more terrifying aspects. Waking up and being completely alone with no idea what happened? No, thank you.

    It’s also worth mentioning that this beautiful sequence wouldn’t have been the same without John Murphy’s unsettling, droning, heart-beat of a score.

    • Three Rows Back · August 29, 2014

      Thanks Nick. No, it’s not a thought that appeals to me either. I’ve wondered on occasion what I would do in those circumstances and honestly I don’t know. Go to pieces probably!

  4. Wandering through the Shelves · August 25, 2014

    One of my favourites. If you live in a city, you’d know streets are never that empty and quiet which just makes the world Jim wakes up to just terrifying as we brace ourselves for what cause it to make an appearance.

    • Three Rows Back · August 29, 2014

      Absolutely. It’s a unnatural thought and one that has played across my mind on occasion. Watching this again still makes me feel a little queasy.

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