Imagine yourself a Londoner, and one morning you wake up from a coma in an empty hospital. No nurses, no patients, not a soul anywhere, only a mess of trash and empty rooms. You stumble outside to find that London itself is in shambles, and virtually devoid of any people. London, one of the largest cities in the world, is empty. Panic caused an evacuation, and now you are left alone to try and figure out what happened to everyone. This is where Jim (Cillian Murphy) finds himself at the onset of Danny Boyle's gripping horror 28 Days Later. The opening scene, where Jim wanders around a London strewn with trash and abandoned cars, is arguably one of the most chilling opening scenes in all of film. It is a masterwork of scope and dread, made palpable by the very personal touch of Jim, wandering alone and confused.
Soon Jim discovers that a blood borne disease has spread across the masses, a "rage," turning people into violent, hissing, spitting zombies who attack mindlessly on sight. He is chased by these monsters, only to be saved by a few survivors who lay out the last four weeks much to his disbelief. "What about the government?" Jim asks one survivor, Mark (Noah Huntley). There is none he says. How can this be? There is always a government somewhere in a plane or a bunker. Only not this time.
The structure of 28 Days Later follows a familiar path; a small group of survivors travel across an apocalyptic urban wasteland in search of more survivors in hopes of keeping society together. Jim and his traveling party come across a father (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter, holed up in an apartment. Turns out they have a car, with gas, and can get everyone across the city to try and find the source of a radio signal that has recently been cast out over the air. All the while they must keep their eyes peeled and stave off attacks from "the infected." Their journey leads them to a militarized compound where certain new issues arise and the infected are looked at differently by a certain general and his men.
Director Danny Boyle changed the game ten years ago with his new zombies. To this point, zombies were slow and lumbering creatures who could only get anything accomplished by overwhelming their victims in sheer volume. These new and improved zombies move fast and furious, spitting blood and attacking quickly. One or two of these monsters is too much to handle, let alone a large group. Boyle also shoots in a high-contrast digital camera, creating shadows at every corner. There is always an impending sense of doom at the edges of the screen. This is a visionary piece of pop art in the horror genre, a sleek and stylish thriller with real wieght behind its action.
28 Days Later was also, to my memory, the first film to tap into the fears of the world following the attacks of 9/11. Released in November of 2002, here is a depiction of a world fallen apart, crumbling under chaos and mass hysteria because of a disease or a weaponized chemical. In the aftermath of the attacks anything seemed like a real possibility. Those deserted streets of Lower Manhattan were an eerie sight in the real world, not far from this fictionalized version of an abandoned London metropolis. I remember 28 Days Later being that much more unsettling back then, though it has not weakened with age. This is still one of the best zombie horror pictures you will ever see.