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The length of a human heartbeat is measured in a nanosecond. Time often feels like it flits by like a humming bird taking wing. The passage of a day, a week or a month can feel like nothing at all in the grand context of life. So it is that a month zooms past like a heartbeat in 28 Days Later. Yet, the devastation left in that month’s wake speaks of years of destruction followed by an age of neglect.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital after being rendered comatose by a bike crash. Uncertain he wanders around an empty, deserted London until he comes across the Rage Infected creatures the majority of the British population have become. Rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) they meet up with fellow survivors Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burnes) and try to make it to a military blockade in Manchester.
28 Days Later is often noted for its depiction of a desolate, empty London. The scenes of Jim wandering through St. Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster Bridge and Piccadilly Circus are eerie enough without the threat of the bloodied creatures lurking behind closed doors. The Herculean task of shutting down London’s main thoroughfares was achieved by filming just before and after dawn for 45 minutes at a time. Much of the same result was achieved on the motorway to Manchester. These scenes along with the rest of the film were shot on small, manoeuvrable digital cameras which also helps with the film’s jerky, spasmodic movement as well as its grainy texture.
28 Days Later is essentially about zombies that run. For those that care this was a massive deviation from the norm at the time but also the shot in the arm the zombie genre needed. For the next few years until The Walking Dead reversed the trend fast zombies were all people saw. Since the infected of 28 Days Later weren’t technically zombies in Alex Garland’s script director Danny Boyle could do what he liked with them. As such the infected are never seen eating their victims though it’s uncertain if that’s their food source. They jerk and spasm like normal zombies but they also run like the wind.
Boyle tailored the film to fit in with its inhabitants. In scenes in which only the survivors are present the camera is still and all is safe and sound. In scenes full of the infected the camera shakes and judders often reusing shots from slightly different angles and speeds. The editing is choppy in these scenes which allowed Boyle to work around his modest budget of $8 million. Only briefly do we see the faces of the infected. The focus is often on those fighting them be it the survivors or the soldiers.
In many zombie films the thing that drives people apart is a lack of or degradation of trust. Trust only builds between Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah. Their personalities may be dominated by confusion, survivalism, cheeriness and distress. However, trust keeps it all from falling apart. It’s only when the soldiers appear that this bedrock begins to crumble.
Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has a radically different view of survival to Jim, Selena and Hannah. After Frank is shot by his soldiers, West takes in the remaining three. He has fortified an old manor house with the few remaining soldiers in his battalion. They plan to wait until the infected starve to death before using any female survivors that come to them as sex slaves to repopulate Britain. Even after the apocalypse, you can’t trust men trained to kill. Who’d have thought? It’s in the film’s final act that Boyle marries the two shooting styles he’s used throughout.
After vehemently disagreeing with West’s plan Jim attempts to escape with Selena and Hannah. He is captured and escapes again embarking on a one man rescue mission sort of like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance but with less rape thankfully. Jim sets free a captured infected and searches the house for the women all while chaos reigns and the soldiers die one by one. As Jim becomes more and more enraged and furious so too does the camerawork of Anthony Dod Mantle before a final confrontation nearly results in Selena killing Jim.
After Jim is rescued by Selena and her other companion Mark (Noah Huntley) at the beginning of the film they travel to Jim’s house together. After finding Jim’s parents dead they settle down for the night only for infected to ambush them and infect Mark. Leaving him no time to turn Selena brutally hacks Mark to death. It takes less than 10 to 20 seconds for someone to turn and Selena claims once their infection is known their companions must react “in a heartbeat”. As 28 Days Later goes on, these heartbeat moments become more literal and when taken together form a metaphor all of their own.
Less than a heartbeat has passed since Jim’s accident in his mind. Less than a heartbeat passes in the time it takes a single drop of infected blood or saliva to enter a survivor’s system. The violent action scenes of the film take no more than a few heartbeats to start and end. Selena could have killed Jim in a heartbeat in the manor house showdown but didn’t and that might just be the best bit of character development in the whole film. God knows none of it belongs to Hannah who’s so apathetic and dour it’s a wonder she’s not a regular zombie. The biggest moments of 28 Days Later are often its quickest. They balance on a knife edge and it’s a credit to Boyle’s film that, even 15 years on, that edge has stayed as keen as it has.