As I related to RPJ’s faithful readers last October, I am not a big fan of horror films. The only true horror film I really enjoy is the one I wrote about last year: John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a movie that is just so well crafted, it transcends the genre it defines through its acting, pacing and handcrafted special effects.
But then, thinking about this year’s Halloween month of horror reviews, it’s not really true at all. I don’t hate horror films. I just hate most horror films. But I do have one soft spot for the horror genre, and it’s a relatively recent guilty pleasure: zombie movies. And it’s easy to say that as the zombie bandwagon is so huge now. AMC’s The Walking Dead pretty much owns the ratings, they finally turned Max Brooks’ zombie opus World War Z into a movie, and now there are even zombie-themed 5k runs around the country.
And perhaps I’m in denial as I don’t really think of zombie films as horror films. What doesn’t interest me in zombie films are the bloodthirsty reanimated beings hungering for brains. Really, the true horror to me in zombie films is the breakdown of society. It’s that giant “What If” of removing everything we find normal in today’s everyday life and replacing it with social unrest and utter chaos is what I think makes the zombie genre so interesting and fascinating to everyone. Thus, the zombie bandwagon.
However, all this recent reinvigorating fandom into zombies started with one film: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Boyle is certainly a director one wouldn’t expect to be heading a horror film but he’s proven that he defies all genres. Coming onto the scene with a small, dark comedy about a murder with Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle burst onto the scene with his energetic, darkly morose yet Underworld-driven uplifting adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1996). And from there, Boyle crafted a well versed resume of critically acclaimed movies of varying size and scope with The Beach (2000), Millions (2004), Sunshine (2007) and would go on to win an Oscar for Best Director as well as Best Picture with Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Mashed up in all that and somewhat lost in the shuffle was 28 Days Later. It’s a small budgeted audacious film that gives faith to independent filmmakers. It was shot entirely on handheld DV cameras and showcased some of England’s most picturesque and iconic landmarks and landscapes – Piccadilly Circus, London Bridge, the M1 highway – completely devoid of human life… and all of it shot WITHOUT computer graphics. Such scenes were shot in the pre-dawn hours and traffic was politely held up until Boyle’s crew could get its shots in. It’s a testament to the amount of effort Boyle was willing to put in to make the surreal feel real.
It all serves as a backdrop for the story of bike messenger Jim, who wakes up from a 28 day-long coma, only to find the world he knew is no longer there. He stumbles upon Mark, Selena, Frank, and Hanna while just trying to survive, and each person teaches him about the harsh, brutal realities of the new world order. Cillian Murphy, who currently is in a long bromance with Christopher Nolan, plays Jim with horrified wonderment. Naomie Harris, she of modern day Miss Moneypenny fame, plays the guide Selena with equal aplomb.
Couple all this with the writing of Alex Garland, Boyle’s writing partner-in-crime pretty much the length of both their careers; and the music direction of John Murphy, another Boyle conspirator who wrote such a great score that one track (“In A Heartbeat”) will send chills down your spine just hearing it outside the context of the movie; and you have a movie that became an instant classic and served as the modern day father to everything else that came after it: the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), its own sequel of 28 Weeks Later (2007), Zombieland (2009), Dead Snow (2009), World War Z (2013), and many many others. George A. Romero, the true grandfather of the zombie genre whose Night of the Living Dead kicked it all off in 1968, enjoyed a resurgence in his film career and directed several new stories in his Night of the Living Dead timeline.
A genre that had petered out in the 1980s was sudden reborn with the full force of a Category 5 hurricane and spread across the entire gamut of fandom and pop culture: television shows like The Walking Dead and Zombieland, video games such as Left 4 Dead and Dead Island, zombie flash mobs, zombie 5k runs, zombie zombie zombie. It’s all owed to 28 Days Later, the little film that could.
Ken Cho is a cinephile and the ship manager of D.C.’s nonprofit used bike shop Gearin Up Bicycles.