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Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This Week in Genre History: 28 Days Later reinvented zombie movies 18 years ago

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Jun 23, 2021, 3:02 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

There may be no more exciting genre filmmaker working right now than Alex Garland. A former novelist who wrote The Beach, which got turned into the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, the 51-year-old writer/director penned the screenplays for some of the smartest and most interesting sci-fi films this century with Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd before stepping behind the camera for Ex Machina and Annihilation. But that transition from author to big-screen auteur first materialized when director Danny Boyle was making The Beach, which inspired Garland to think about a future in movies.

“I had been writing novels up until that point,” Garland recalled in 2016, “and just the idea of a collaboration seemed very attractive to me. It just looked like a lot of fun, really. Initially, I was working with [Beach producer] Andrew Macdonald, who I still work with now actually, and I said to him that I had an idea for a movie about running zombies.”

28 Days Later was his first produced screenplay — The Beach had been adapted by frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge — and, right out of the gate, he’d come up with a classic. Viewers can argue about whether 28 Days Later is technically a zombie film — people aren’t dead, they’re just infected by a virus that makes them seem zombie-like — but just about everyone agrees that it’s one incredibly scary movie. Released on June 27, 2003, in the States — it had hit U.K. theaters the previous November — the film rethought the horror genre and proved to be a chilling post-9/11 commentary at the same time. It felt anarchic and dangerous. “In my mind, it was this sort of punk film,” Garland once said. “It had a punk sensibility.”

The Britain-set thriller starred Cillian Murphy as Jim, a regular bloke who wakes up in the hospital following a coma. Bad news, Jim: While you were sleeping civilization has been decimated by a virus called Rage that has turned humans against one another, creating a bleak post-apocalyptic scenario. (Few who have seen 28 Days Later will forget this fearsome bit of graffiti: “Repent The End Is Extremely F***ing Nigh.”) 

Jim teams up with some other survivors, including Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson, eventually making their way to what they believe will be safe haven from the virus. That doesn’t end up working out quite like they imagined, and Boyle’s intentionally low-grade digital cameras capture every horrifying moment along their bruising odyssey. 28 Days Later meant to chronicle the end of the world, but it ended up opening an exciting new era in mainstream genre films. 

Why was it a big deal at the time? Coming out of the 1990s, zombie movies weren’t very fashionable. But the early 2000s saw a resurgence in the genre, sparked largely by 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, which were both shot around roughly the same time in 2001. Danny Boyle wasn’t necessarily the director you’d think of to help launch that resurgence. The celebrated English director had launched onto the scene thanks to the Hitchcockian thriller Shallow Grave and then delivered one of the decade’s most zeitgeist-y films with the addiction drama Trainspotting, both of which helped make a young actor named Ewan McGregor a star. But by the time he prepped 28 Days Later, he seemed to be in a slump: His Trainspotting follow-up A Life Less Ordinary was largely dismissed and The Beach had bombed — partly because it was DiCaprio’s first film after Titanic, which put unreasonable expectations on the movie. After flirting with the Hollywood system, this down-and-dirty zombie flick was Boyle’s way of getting back to basics.

“Normally making a [sci-fi movie requires] a huge budget, but we wanted to keep the budget down to about $6 million, and we did that because we didn’t want any stars in it,” Boyle later told Filmmaker. “We wanted it to be just ordinary people. Not having the money can be a problem or it can be a kind of freedom, and for us it was a freedom.”

Although Boyle had brought Garland’s novel to theaters with The Beach, the two really hadn’t worked much together, but they clicked on the underlying themes of 28 Days Later. “[I]t was just a paranoid story coming out of the paranoid time,” Garland said in the same Filmmaker interview. “Lots of stuff was happening in this country that felt like the right kind of social subtext or social commentary that you could put in a science fiction film. Danny was particularly interested in issues that had to do with social rage  — the increase of rage in our society, road rage, and other things. Also our government’s inability to deal with things like BSE [mad cow disease], Foot and Mouth. You always felt that if a virus exploded into our country, our government would be 20 steps behind wherever the virus was.”

By shooting on digital video, and focusing on zombies who could run fast — as opposed to the super-slow undead who usually populate such movies — Boyle brought a gritty spark to the genre. And although the filmmakers drew on U.K. social issues for their inspiration, anyone could appreciate 28 Days Later’s glum message: After all, the world had just been living through years of pre-millennium tension in the buildup to 2000. (Seriously, we all thought civilization was going to collapse because of Y2K.) 

Boyle didn’t want stars, but he eyed good up-and-coming actors for his leads. Cillian Murphy hadn’t been in much before auditioning for 28 Days Later, thrilled at the prospect of working with Boyle. “Shallow Grave and Trainspotting were two definitive films for me growing up,” Murphy recalled in 2019. “Before I contemplated becoming an actor, those two films were highly significant for me. Danny is one of the best directors in the world, so it was a huge thing for me to get that role.” As for Naomie Harris, she’d done theater and television, but films were largely unknown territory. When she auditioned to play Selena, who’s far from some helpless damsel in distress, Boyle thought Harris had such promise that he called her afterward to give her guidance for landing the part. “He said, ‘Naomie, you really need to be tougher, because Selena is a very tough character. You need to work on that and be really cold,’” Harris told The Guardian. “That was really brilliant, because normally you don’t know what a director wants.”

Casting respected Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and reuniting with his Shallow Grave co-star Christopher Eccleston (who plays the evil leader of the compound that our heroes eventually reach), Boyle always pushed against the idea that he was making a zombie movie. “You have to be absolutely respectful of the zombie genre because that was very much to do with nuclear paranoia, of what radiation might turn us into,” he said at the time. “It’s why zombie films work, but it seems to me to be over … things are different now. What I loved about the script was that it’s a psychological virus, not a clinical virus. They’re not zombies or monsters, they’re us, and I’m fighting a constant battle to prove this.”

It was a fight he’d lose: Both the U.K. and U.S. distributors leaned heavily on the idea that this was a ferocious new strain of zombie picture. And audiences hadn’t had one of those in a while, so there was reason to be excited. And terrified. 

What was the impact? When the movie opened in America on June 27, 2003, it already carried plenty of buzz from its overseas release and its screening at, among other festivals, Sundance. Released by Fox Searchlight, 28 Days Later was positioned as nervy counterprogramming to the summer’s crowd-pleasing blockbusters. On its opening weekend, this gruesome R-rated horror film landed in a very respectable fourth place, behind Finding Nemo, Hulk, and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Worldwide, the low-budget affair grossed over $80 million. After two commercial duds, Boyle was back.

Resident Evil had beaten 28 Days Later to the multiplex, but both movies’ success set in motion a string of zombie films, including Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. By the end of that decade, we had everything from Zombieland to 28 Weeks Later, a sequel directed by Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Even if hardcore genre fans argued that 28 Days Later was most certainly not a zombie movie, it definitely helped generate fresh interest in zombie movies.

And although the film was conceived prior to 9/11 — and shooting began before the terror attacks — 28 Days Later went into the marketplace in the aftermath of those real-world horrors, with viewers inevitably drawing comparisons between the chaos onscreen and the chaos they felt in their own lives. The movie seemed to tap into a sense of doomsday, and that sensation — even more than the rebirth of zombie cinema — is probably 28 Days Later’s greatest legacy. Soon, Hollywood genre films were painted in a darker hue, with blockbusters such as I Am Legend frequently depicting a devastated civilization in which monsters run free. Everything from The Road to A Quiet Place was, in essence, a reaction to 9/11 — they’re all a product of a collective cultural belief that something terrible had swept in and destroyed everything. 28 Days Later was one of the first films to get there, entirely by accident. 

Meanwhile, the movie’s principal stars went on to big careers. Murphy, who teamed up again with Boyle and Garland for Sunshine, has been in several Christopher Nolan films, not to mention Peaky Blinders and A Quiet Place Part II. Harris earned an Oscar nomination for Moonlight and is now Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. And Garland’s daring takes on science fiction have only evolved over the time, most recently on the FX series Devs

“I’m always pushing back against the last thing I did in some way,” Garland said in 2018, “and some of that is restlessness and a sense of limited time. I understand in rational ways why people work on long franchises. I understand the financial benefits. I get the carrot at the end of the stick that leads them to it. But in truth, I can’t understand internally why they do it because you then have to spend another three years of your limited life doing the same thing when you don’t have to. And it’s too existential. I just can’t get my head around it.”

Has it held up? 28 Days Later remains utterly scary, and its bargain-basement look is, if anything, even more startling than when the film came out. In 2021, the movie looks like some cursed artifact that someone found in a dingy basement — kind of like the videocassette in The Ring

It’s funny that, all these years later, as we continue to get inundated with zombie movies such as Army of the Dead, the undead are still walking slowly. The idea of fleet-footed zombies remains Boyle’s domain. It was something he and Garland just figured would be frightening. (“I said to be really scary, they can’t just stumble around going ‘argh,’ ‘cause otherwise you’d just walk away from them,” Boyle said somewhat recently.) Watching zombies chase after our heroes, it still chills the blood.

Will there ever be a Part 3 to this series? Boyle has hinted at the possibility of a 28 Months Later that would find him and Garland hooking up again. (Apparently, the two filmmakers were once at odds but have since mended fences.) But what’s so striking about maybe doing a sequel is how different that movie may hit today than when 28 Days Later arrived back in the day. In the early 2000s, Boyle and Garland’s vision seemed to speak to our post-9/11 dread. But now? Well, we’ve all just gone through the worst pandemic in a century — we know just how tragic and painful a seemingly unstoppable virus is. And certainly, the rancor in our society has only amplified since the first movie — you can see examples of a de facto rage virus everywhere. These movies are all part of the same franchise, but some of the terrors they’re reflecting have mutated over time.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.