Horror fans take note: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is the real deal. This genuinely scary post-apocalyptic zombie movie is indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids) and George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead), opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. It’s not long before the zombies awaken and pursue him at breakneck speeds through the streets of London. Yes, these monsters travel fast (they’re a cross between athletic football players and drug fiends). A marvel of economic storytelling, 28 Days Later follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that swept the country, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. They take a 3-day trip to Manchester in the hope of finding an army base that promises rescue, and each stop along the way is fraught with peril. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts.
28 Days Later works well on its own merits. The long silences between bursts of violence allow for empathy for the film’s characters (always reliable Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is particularly touching as a teddy bear father-figure). Like all good horror films, when one of the heroes is struck down it actually means something. Choice villains are found in the infected, as well as the rational sociopath running the military operation out of Manchester (Christopher Eccleston). If 28 Days Later has one major fault, it’s the use of digital video. Certain action sequences morph into abstract blurs where it’s near impossible to tell what’s happening. Boyle also runs into the same problem that hurt Romero’s Day of the Dead, where the army base becomes a source of easy conflict as piggish soldiers lose their discipline as society collapses. Still, these problems are relatively minor considering the hard-driving intensity of 28 Days Later. The Rage virus feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who has struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey.
There's a difference between a bad transfer and film that was deliberately made to look bad. The latter is the case with Danny Boyle's scary and atmospheric 28 Days Later, which uses crummy DV to complement the film's post-apocalyptic groove. Because every image in the film appears as if it's been treated in some way, colors aren't saturated, blacks aren't very deep and shadow delineation is pretty poor. Fittingly, the glorious photography of the film's final moments similarly complements the potential and hope of the human race. Cheap video equipment, yes, but there's nothing puny about the disc's aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Every shriek, whisper and drop of rain comes through loud and clear, and the dynamic range is truly impressive.
For anyone who doesn't own the film's Region 2 DVD, everything included here will be new. First off is a disappointing commentary track by director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland. Because 28 Days Later is such a visual film, it's easy to trudge through this track despite it being so unenlightening. When they're actually talking, Boyle and Garland spend much of the film discussing the difficulties they faced during production. The track only comes alive whenever they specifically focus on the film's themes or how Boyle modeled many of his shots after photographic images of various political unrests (or how they were able to get away with a lot of stuff because they shot the film before the events of 9/11). Curiously, the commentary Boyle and Garland provide over six deleted scenes is far more interesting, perhaps because we get to see a lot of footage from the film that's still "untreated" (shot featuring cars in the background or advertisements for major companies that need replacing). "Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days Later" is a little on the flashy side but impressive for the way it contextualizes the film's horrors with current events, namely the Foot-and-Mouth fiasco in Europe.
The main attraction here, though, is the three alternate endings: the "alternative theatrical" (which is much bleaker than the original); the "alternative ending" (which basically continues where the "alternative theatrical" leaves off); and the fascinating "radical alternative ending." It's radical because it was never filmed and it imagines a different version of the film entirely following the death of Brendan Gleeson's character. Using phenomenal storyboards by Brendan Houghton, Boyle reads the voices of the film's characters and Garland reads all the script directions. In many ways, there's a better film here. The military compound is replaced with a hospital and the central conflict concerns Jim's attempts to win the help of an uninfected man who doesn't want to help the surviving trio. Boyle abandoned this arc because he and Garland hadn't figured out a way to make the blood transfusion part make sense, but fans of the film will wish that they'd film the final scene that has Jim replacing the monkey from the film's existing opening scene on the scientist's table. Rounding out the disc are two excellent photo galleries (with director's commentary no less!), a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, animated storyboards from the original U.K. website and a Jacknife Lee music video.
A solid audio transfer and a nifty collection of supplemental materials (including three alternative endings) highlight this DVD edition of Danny Boyle's solid genre spooker 28 Days Later.