4th May 2021 Andrew Wildey

28 Days Later – Run Zombie Run!

At the turn of the century we were all chomping at the bit for a front row seat at the end of the world. Our grandparents had survived the war and it seemed for a time that no one had any fight left in them. Their children, the boomer generation, would enjoy five decades of boozing it up, buying cheap houses and wrecking the environment whilst all the while everything seemed to get very comfortable, a little too comfortable. We began to face an existential threat of a life without incident – a calm and comfortable existence where we never really had to overcome odds or struggle against adversity. A collective itch began to grow that would end with us footing a £20bn bill for the non-existent millennium bug, but little did we know the atrocities that the year 2000 would really bring. Coldplay… Athlete… the horror, the horror.

The apocalypse failed to materialise but the tension remained, though no longer did we expect fire to rain down from the heavens but rather that our end would be something we would do to ourselves. 9/11 finally brought about the moment for which we had braced ourselves, with an event that not only affected the world geopolitically but also the world of the arts. Avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen commented:

“What has happened is – now you all have to turn your brains around – the greatest work of art there has ever been.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hamburg, September 2001

Post 9/11 horror gained a new aesthetic of a world in collapse. In the year the twin towers fell two movies were going into production that would, in different ways, reinvigorate the zombie movie genre. One was the b-movie sugar of Paul Anderson’s “Resident Evil”, a series that would go on to become a big guilty pleasure, and the other Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, possibly one of the most influential films I’ve ever seen.

“Right from the beginning you knew this was different”

“28 Days Later” is often attributed for reinvigorating the zombie movie genre through the introduction of the “running zombie”, which has become a staple in pretty much every zombie since such including “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), “REC“(2007), “World War Z” (2013), “Train to Busan” (2016) and many more. However, whilst the film did indeed popularise the running zombie, it had in fact already been done as far back as Umberto Lenzi’s “Nightmare City” (1980). When “28 Days Later” was originally released in 2002 I was working around Wembley and remember seeing the billboards up with their bold, graphic, red and black biohazard look. I first saw the film fresh, meaning I hadn’t seen a single preview or trailer, so went in with no expectations whatsoever. What struck me most from the outset was how much closer the film felt than anything like it before. It was set on the very streets where we’d go to clubs like The End just off Tottenham Court Road, where Jim would set off the alarm of an abandoned car (pictured above). The film also had a very authentic British feel to it. Unlike the wooden, middle class, rom-com guff of Richard Curtis, “28 Days Later” was raw and aggressive and something I could truly envision on the streets of London. 

Parallels can be drawn with movies such as “The Omega Man” (1971) which preceded it, but the film felt much removed from the high budget Hollywood gloss of predictable characters, generic casting and over dependance upon VFX. Boyle also dispensed with some real world logic in favour of more striking and charged visuals. For example there is no logical explanation as to why no bodies are present during the films opening, but this was a conscious decision in favour of achieving something more abstract and stirring. Some of its visuals would also echo scenes of 9/11 which had occurred during its production though not a direct point of reference.

“It was coming in through your windows”

Danny Boyle is a national treasure who has consistently pushed the envelope and developed his own wall breaking style where reality can be subverted yet simultaneously contained within the rules of the respective filmic world. Through this style Boyle enables the subjects of his films to momentarily escape the normal bounds of reality and delve into an entirely different space regardless of whether they’re confined on a spaceship, trapped under a boulder or down Scotland’s worst toilet. I’ll never forget them showing the overdose scene from “Trainspotting” in a school assembly and how none of the other idiot kids understood how Renton sinking into the carpet was a subversion to externalise the experience of him sinking into his intoxicated state. 

“28 Days Later” is undoubtedly a Boyle/DNA film that enlists many of his dream team including writer Alex Garland, actor Cillian Murphy, composer John Murphy and sound designer Glenn Freemantle. One member of the team who was absolutely pivotal in this production however was cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle. A dogma 95 guy and a pioneer in the use of digital cameras over conventional 35mm rigs, Dod Mantle would film some scenes from “28 Days Later” using a Cannon XL1, a handheld DV camera which can be picked up today for as little as £270. 

The inclusion of a handheld DV camera gives the production as a whole a hit of “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) effect, where camera shake can be used to energise a scene and the lo-fi quality provides a more real world visual experience. The JJ Abrams produced monster movie “Cloverfield” (2008) owes a debut to Dod Mantle’s work in this respect and most certainly the events of 9/11. Digital cameras produce more jagged visual artefacts compared to softer 35mm film and this is used to incredible effect in the scene where the infected attack Jim’s house, with the fragments of a smashing window seem razor sharp and every splatter of blood feels all the more visceral. The final element that perfects the violence of the imagery is the frame rate/shutter speed. By shooting at double the ordinary 25fps/50shutter, the image loses the smooth blur we normally associate with movies and achieves an even more sharp and subtle stroboscopic look. The culmination of this technical approach has outstanding effect with Private Mailer’s brutal rampage in the final act.

“You’ll never hear another piece of original music”

With virtually every modern British horror movie there is always some area of compromise. Either amateur acting, over-ambitious use of effects or crappy music, there is always somewhere they drop the ball. However “28 Days Later” delivers spectacularly in the sound department. I was working as a music distributor when the film came out and nabbed myself a copy of the soundtrack on vinyl and it may well have the coolest artwork of any record I own (pictured above). John Murphy has worked with Danny Boyle on a number of films and every time his work perfectly hits the mark. For the most part it is comprised of very raw, pounding indie rock tracks that as well as adding heart thumping tension to the visuals, also act to extenuate the punky British feel of the movie. In counter point are more melancholic pieces that emphasise a sense of sad loss and solitude. When producing the original music for “Crobar: Music When the Lights Go Out” (2020) we presented composer Hiraeth the this soundtrack as a reference of the feeling we wanted for the desolation of London due to Covid-19. As well as the original music are licensed tracks “AM 180” by Grandaddy that provides an upbeat lift midway into the movie, Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” and “Season Song” by Blue States that rolls with the credits – a really nice track with the rich instrumentation that became their trademark sound featuring vocals from the St Winifreds Choir. As a record the soundtrack not only comes across as British (with the exception of Grandaddy), in keeping with the rest of the film, but also very complete and accomplished.

“It’s in the blood”

“28 Days Later” shows the important role that motion and its speed plays in the language of cinematography and demonstrates that camera choice can be as much as matter of aesthetics as of economics. Sometimes the lesser expensive camera could be the better creative choice. There are those who attempt to take on the blockbusters without the means to do so only to come off hackey but when you embrace the inherent creative possibilities of even the most rudimentary equipment or unorthodox techniques, that is when you can truly start to innovate.

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