Danny Boyle has been a restless wanderer through the cinematic landscape. He takes a genre, leaves his mark, and moves on just as quickly as he came in. He's a talented guy, and he's as adaptable to the genres he chooses as they are to him. Several of his films have become touchstones for modern cinema, including Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and now 28 Days Later, Boyle's take on zombie horror flicks, and in particular the character-driven pieces by George Romero.
As the film opens, a team of eco-terrorists break into a medical research facility, only to find dozens of monkeys. Some are in cages, some are strapped to tables, and one is forced to watch endless videos of horrible atrocities. The terrorists, aghast at what they see, start freeing the simians, only to discover that they are are infected with a disease. This disease, called Rage, quickly takes hold of the intruders and they set out upon an unsuspecting world, ready to wreak havoc and destruction.
28 days later...a lone man, let's call him Jim (Cillian Murphy), awakens in a hospital bed. He's confused, he's disoriented, and he can't figure out why nobody will answer when he calls out. Gathering his wits about him, he stumbles out into London's streets, now empty and looking like they've undergone some terrible calamity. There's trash all over the place, overturned double decker buses, and Jim cannot find another living soul. That all changes when he wanders into a church, only to find the priest and all of his parish are still there...and they're hungry.
Jim soon discovers the hard way that in less than a month, Rage wiped out all the major population centers in England. He does happen to come across a few other survivors, and they band together in an attempt to survive. But when you've got an entire nation of blood crazed Rage carriers on your tail, no place is safe for too long. And in a world where mankind faces extinction, how much value does humanity retain?
28 Days Later was Danny Boyle's brilliant re-invention of the zombie genre. Much has been made of the fact that Boyle made the decision to have his zombies run, where traditionally they shambled. It is important to note, however, that these are not traditional zombies. They are living humans, infected with a virus. The outcome of the infection has many of the same qualities as a zombie outbreak, but these are not reanimated corpses. That's the technical explanation for why they act more lively than their zombie counterparts. But more than that, the importance of this distinction lies in the film's overall emotional pitch. Rage is similar to AIDS, a blood borne pathogen that kills. But in this case, the destruction has been externalized, turned outwards back on the society that created it.
Looked at in this light, 28 Days Later is positively frightening. Not only is there the visceral threat of a horde of faceless maniacs out to kill you, but there's the more amorphous dread of what they represent. When Cillian Murphy fights for his life, there's the awareness that the struggle is bigger than man against man. It's man against nature, man against the world. If an epidemic of such massive proportions were to in fact break out, how would we handle it? If anyone were vulnerable, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or even geographic location, are our societies sufficiently stable enough to hold up against such an onslaught?
This is also examined in the film. Aside from the visually arresting scenes of Jim wandering a thoroughly desolate London (shot with such effective economy and simplicity that the filmmakers behind I Am Legend really could have benefited by following Boyle's example), later in the film he comes across a compound run by soldiers. Using their battle experience, they've been able to isolate their little patch of land from the surrounding chaos. Being a military outfit, though, they aren't one for communal living, and their regiment is harshly ruled over by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). West himself has abandoned his discipline. After all, if you're one of a handful of people alone in a world that threatens to destroy each and every one of you, why not fill your nights with food and drink?
Things don't stay simple, though, as West becomes drunk with power, forcing Jim to choose between his empathy and his survival. Again, even during the most intense and horrifying sequences, Boyle layers on another level of meaning. There is a certain attraction to West's way of life. And with nothing resembling normality outside the compound, what incentive is there to hold on to the old notions of morality or ethics? The world has changed to the point where such concepts may not even matter anymore. Or, perhaps, because of the changes that have occurred, they are more valuable than ever before.
It's this density of content that makes 28 Days Later such an engaging film. You can enjoy it as a zombie flick, but there's so much there to discover as you watch. Unlike other genre pictures, such as the flaccid Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 Days Later is actually trying to say something. The best horror films use the monsters as a means to an end, and Boyle ably follows in the footsteps of the masters, while still making a picture that is undeniably his own. 28 Days Later is tense, exciting, vicious, and thought-provoking. It's a zombie picture with a rare amount of intelligence and depth. Simply brilliant.
The Blu-ray Disc:
28 Days Later is an exceedingly bizarre candidate for release on a high definition format. The film was shot with DV cams, which are of such low resolution that they would not benefit from a high definition transfer. To make matters worse, in the editing process, Danny Boyle purposely degraded the picture even further, leaving only the film's denouement untouched (and the only portion actually shot on celluloid, for that matter). So why choose this title for release this early in the format's life, especially coming from Fox, who actually stopped production on all of their Blu-ray discs in order to wait for BD+ to become active. My guess is that this release was mostly done as a tie-in for the film's sequel, 28 Weeks Later, and less as a tent pole release for the format.
The AVC-encoded 1.85:1 1080p transfer looks as good as the source material will allow. That is to say, it doesn't look very good at all. As I mentioned, the film is meant to look like worse than standard definition, and it does. Slapping it on a high capacity disc in 1080p isn't going to change that. If you want to get more precise, the movie clearly shows its digital video roots, with a harshness that one doesn't get from film. Stairstepping and artifacts are commonplace. The image is soft, dirty, lacking in detail, and fuzzy. The final sequence, shot on film, is cleaner, with much better detail, color reproduction, and clarity.
Of course, the obvious caveat is that Danny Boyle purposely made 28 Days Later look this way, and thus that is how it should appear on home video, regardless of the format. And I wholeheartedly agree. In this case, my description of the image is not an attack, but simply a stating of facts. The transfer itself is fine in that is accurately reflects the director's intentions. I am still giving it a low star rating because no matter which way you slice it, this is not a film that will show off your high def television.
Fox continues the somewhat bewildering trend of offering only a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (of which almost none of the existing players can take advantage), which means that all I could do was hear the lossy core that my PS3 was able to extract. I personally found the mix on 28 Days Later to be in its own way as harsh as the image. That's not to say it sounds bad, however. Dialogue is well equalized and the bass track is almost always active, and very noticeable. The sound goes a long way towards helping the effectiveness of the more tense scenes. But I found that quite often, sound placement felt off, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or not. I did see the film back in the theaters and don't recall the mix being so oddly lopsided. I could certainly see Boyle doing it on purpose, to keep the audience off balance and nervous.
- Commentary with Director Danny Boyle and Writer Alex Garland: Boyle and Garland sit down together for a decent commentary track. The two play off each other, often expanding on each other's comments or using them as a springboard for their next subject. To me the most interesting moments came when they discussed how they achieved all the shots of London devoid of people ("We just blocked off the streets," Boyle admits), but the entire track is of high quality.
- Deleted Scenes with optional commentary: Almost ten minutes worth of deleted scenes, all with optional commentary available. The scenes themselves are less interesting than the commentaries, which steer clear of the "we ran out of time" kind of comments.
- Alternate Endings: Four, to be exact. Usually the presence of alternate endings shows a lack of faith in the material by the filmmakers, but in this case, it seems like Boyle and Garland were simply exploring options. Some are better than others, but as one of the few people who liked the film's theatrical ending, I didn't think any of them were that great.
- Pure Rage - The Making of 28 Days Later: A fairly conversational making of, this featurette actually starts with the ideas behind Alex Garland's script, and how credible they might be. This is then applied to the film itself, and the cast and crew stop in to give their thoughts. Most of the documentary falls under the category of reflection and analysis rather than behind the scenes footage.
- Animated Storyboards: Somewhat self-explanatory.
- Photo Galleries: These come in two flavors. The first is a production gallery, and the second is a Polaroid gallery. Both run as slideshows, and both have commentary by Danny Boyle.
- Music Video
- Trailers: The only special feature in high definition, we get the teaser for the film (superb) the full trailer (less so), one for 28 Weeks Later, and From Hell, Aliens vs. Predator, and Sunshine.
28 Days Later is one of Danny Boyle's strongest films, and his most hyper charged since Trainspotting. What sets this movie apart from the host of zombie flicks invading our cineplexes is the level of reflection and contemplation that Boyle and writer Alex Garland impart to the material, raising it to a much higher level. HD nuts should note that the picture in 28 Days Later looks awful on purpose, and this is about as far as you can get from demo material. However, fans of the film will relish the improved fidelity of the DTS-HD MA soundtrack and the inclusion of all the special features from the DVD. While the image isn't going to win any awards, this film and its extras are just too good to pass up. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.