© 2020, by M. Keith Booker
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was only a moderate commercial success, but it received widespread critical acclaim and is recognized as one of the most influential zombie films of all time. It helped to trigger an energetic renaissance in the zombie subgenre as a whole, mostly because of the effectiveness of its ultra-fast, ultra-violent zombies. 28 Days Later is also notable for its visual presentation of a postapocalyptic London as a blighted and abandoned wasteland. In addition, it contains some of the same kind of strong social and political commentary for which Romero’s zombie films are so well known. And, finally, the film has been widely noted for its technical achievements, breaking new ground in the use of digital video to produce impressive-looking special effects on a relatively low budget.
28 Days Later begins with a sort of prologue that explains the beginnings of its zombie apocalypse. In particular, this initial scene is set in a London research laboratory where horrific and inhumane research is being performed on primates, reminding us of the kinds of cruel and selfish behavior of which humans are so often guilty but to which so many of us contentedly turn a blind eye. And, of course, this opening scene raises a number of important questions about the ethics of using live animals in research. This notion is then particularly reinforced in this prologue by the fact that much of the research in this facility seems to be oriented toward an investigation of the human proclivity for and fascination with violence. Many of the experimental subjects seem to have been intentionally infected with a “Rage” virus designed to intensify their responses to various stimuli, including a never-ending stream of video images of real-world violence, somewhat in the mode of the stream of such images to which Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is subjected in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1971 dystopian film A Clockwork Orange. Then a group of well-meaning animal-right activists breaks into the facility in order to try to release the animals, not realizing that they have been infected with this dangerous virus. They are then attacked by the animals, leading to mayhem as the scene ends, cutting to a moment that an on-screen graphic identifies as occurring “28 Days Later.”
The film proper then begins as Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle messenger who has been hospitalized in a coma after a traffic accident, awakens to find the hospital deserted. That Jim might have survived unattended all this time, then awake in virtually perfect health at this point seems very unlikely in a literal sense, of course, but it’s the classic science fiction trope of “the sleeper wakes,” and it functions perfectly well to set up the main narrative of the film, as Jim initially tries to get his bearings and to negotiate his way through this new postapocalyptic world into which he has awakened. His understandable confusion is matched by our own as he finds the once-bustling London seemingly deserted. Indeed, some of the most effective visuals of the entire film are captured in these early scenes of London’s abandoned streets, images that are made all the more striking because so many of the locations are so familiar to us from earlier, more normal days. These also place the film—more clearly than most zombie films—within a postapocalyptic context. Eventually, Jim discovers that London is not entirely deserted: there are, in fact, roving groups of what appear to be violent, cannibalistic, raving lunatics. We will eventually come to understand that these individuals are the vicious, fast-moving “zombies” for which this film has become so well known, though these zombies are merely infected individuals: they have not been raised from the dead and thus are not truly zombies in the traditional sense. Indeed, 28 Days Later never uses the word “zombie,” opting instead to label its monsters as “the infected,” thus clarifying that its zombies are a physical/medical phenomenon, rather than a supernatural one—and possibly placing the film as much in the realm of science fiction as horror.
The motif of Jim’s coma helps to establish a gap between the earlier times of normality and the current time of all-out “zombie” apocalypse, though Jim comes to understand the situation better partly because he is taken in by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), two survivors who have managed to remain alive and uninfected during the past 28 days of the outbreak of the epidemic. They have thus experienced the events that led to London’s current sad state, learning a great deal about the behavior of the zombies and developing techniques of survival that they now begin to pass along to Jim.
Soon after Jim joins forces with Selena and Mark, he convinces them to pay a visit to the Deptford home of his parents, where they learn that the parents have committed suicide to avoid having to deal with the Rage epidemic. While there, they are attacked by two of the formerly mild-mannered neighbors, who have now become infected. Mark manages to kill the attackers, but is himself infected in the battle. As with most zombie narratives, the zombie affliction is highly contagious and can be passed along to others via a bite or through contact with other bodily fluids, making most zombie narratives allegorical stand-ins for epidemics in general. Realizing that Mark, having accidentally cut himself with a blade he had been using to kill zombies, is now infected through the resultant transfer of blood, Selena quickly kills him as well. The lesson is a harsh one, but one worth heeding: in this postapocalyptic world, one must act swiftly and decisively. There is no room for sentiment or hesitation.
Still, one of the important subplots of 28 Days Later involves the gradual revelation that Selena still has a human side, no matter how hard she might try to hide it. For one thing, she gradually develops a clear affection for Jim. For another, she clearly feels protective toward both Jim and Hannah (Megan Burns), a young girl who, along with her father Frank (Brendan Gleeson) soon joins their group. Frank, a cab driver, informs them that they have picked up a recorded broadcast inviting survivors to seek shelter in a military stronghold that has been set up in Manchester. They all decide to head north in Frank’s cab, but they first they make a quick stop at a Budgens shop, one of a chain of British grocery stores that was founded in 1872 and significantly expanded in 1997, when Budgens acquired the stores of the Dallas-based 7-Eleven company that were then operating in the United Kingdom.
Somewhat surprisingly, they find that the Budgens shop is still quite well stocked and seems untouched by the Rage apocalypse. This discovery not only allows them to stock up for the drive to Manchester, but also provides for one of the few light moments in the film as the four travelers gleefully “shop” in the store, experiencing a sort of consumerist joy that derives not only from the fact that they are happy to find such bounty but also from the fact that these well-lit, well-stocked shelves allow them to experience a fantasy of return to normality, reliving the pre-apocalypse days of plenty when such bountiful stores could be taken for granted. Among other things, this scene resonates with the shopping mall setting of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to introduce the topic of consumerism, in this case reminding us of how central the easy availability of consumer goods is to our sense of normality and well-being.
However, this playful scene in Budgens, a companied by cheerful music, in fact represents more than a return to the pre-apocalypse norm. As Sarah Juliet Lauro notes, one of the ways in which this film participates in the tradition of using the zombie motif as a critique of capitalism is in the way that this scene actually represents a fantasy of transcending the pre-apocalyptic capitalist norm. In particular, this romp through the store comes at no cost. The “shoppers” can “buy” whatever they want, because they know they will never have to pay. It is thus only as a sort of joke, a sort of thumbing of the nose at the previous capitalist system, that Frank leaves his credit card on the counter as he exits the store, knowing it will never be charged. He thus doesn’t have to worry about the cost of the several bottles of expensive Lagavulin scotch that he has loaded into his cart, something he would never have been able to afford in the pre-zombie world. This brief respite from the darkness of the film thus reminds us that this former world was not without its own difficulties and injustices, while the scene itself provides a glimpse of what the world might have been like had capitalism been overcome without the intervention of a zombie apocalypse, a vision that is seldom found in the postapocalyptic texts that have been so popular in this century.
One might also argue that the Budgens scene suggests a parallel between the rabid need to devour human flesh that seems to drive the infected and the programmed need to consume commodities that drives the group of human survivors, though the link between the “zombies” and the humans in this sense is certainly less obvious than the similar link that is so central to Dawn of the Dead. Nevertheless, 28 Days Later does, in a different way, deliver a very clear suggestion that the infected zombies are in many ways not all that different from the way humans were before the “Rage” outbreak, except that they have perhaps had a few inhibitions removed. Here, however, rather than the typical zombie film suggestion that people both before and after zombification were basically in mindless thrall to the lures of consumerism or other forces, we have the suggestion that humans were vicious, violent, and predatory all along.
This notion is particularly reinforced late in the film when the group of survivors reaches Manchester, after a harrowing trip that includes a number of close calls and some of the film’s most effective action scenes, which very effectively convey a sense of extreme violence even in this relatively low-budget film, thanks to innovative use of digital video recording and sound and video editing that together create the illusion that we have actually seen more violence than we really have. Unfortunately, when they finally reach their destination in Manchester, the travelers find the military installation there abandoned. They are then attacked by zombies, and Frank is killed, though the others are rescued by a detachment of soldiers who take them back to their new, heavily fortified headquarters in a countryside mansion near Manchester.
At last, then, the survivors seem to have reached safety. There is, though, something that almost immediately seems to be a bit off about these soldiers, some of whom—especially the obnoxious Corporal Mitchell (Ricci Harnett) seem to be less than gracious hosts. The mansion setting seems a bit suspicious as well, and one suspects that Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the soldiers, is not entirely disappointed with the new world order that has placed him in such a position of authority. We also learn that the soldiers have a captive zombie, Private Mailer (Marvin Campbell), who is supposedly being held for research purposes, but who is treated quite cruelly, even sadistically, once again suggesting something sinister about this military installation. In particular, Mailer is being kept in chains without food toward the goal of yielding up information about how long the infected take to starve to death—this echoing in a chilling way the cruel animal experiments of the film’s prologue.
Hosting the new arrivals at a formal dinner that is presumably meant to impress them (and thus giving him something of the air of a feudal lord), the cynical West delivers the film’s most direct comparison between conditions before and after the rage outbreak: “This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people, which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people, which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.”
Of course, West is hardly an exemplary figure, and we are not necessarily meant to accept his diagnosis of the situation at face value. Indeed, one of West’s men, Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie), suggests soon afterward that West is insane and shouldn’t be listened to. Nevertheless, West’s analysis is to an extent supported by the opening prologue, which features all those pre-apocalypse signs of senseless violence from contemporary news reports, with the suggestion that the laboratory’s research program is intended to try to understand human violence and aggression (a suggestion that is itself ironized by the heartless cruelties that are being visited upon the laboratory’s simian subjects).
Then West reveals the truly sinister nature of his project when he reveals to Jim (hoping to convince Jim to join his forces) that he has brought Selena and Hannah to the compound to serve as sex slaves for his men, thus improving the morale of the soldiers, who otherwise have nothing to look forward to. One suspects, though, as the film proceeds, that West wants his men to think that their current situation is the new status quo and that they cannot hope to be rescued, perhaps by forces from outside Britain. Horrified, Jim immediately tries to escape the compound with Selena and Hannah, only to be captured and ordered to be executed, along with Farrell, who attempted to help with the escape. In this sense, West’s own soldiers (along with West himself) seem to verify his theory that the uninfected are not all that different from the infected, even if Jim and Farrell provide reminders that there were some decent people all along.
Ultimately, Jim, Selena, and Hannah escape (with a major assist from Mailer, who wreaks revenge on West and many of the other soldiers after being released by Jim), though Jim is badly wounded in the process. This escape then leads to the film’s somewhat controversial ending, in which Selena and Hannah nurse Jim back to health in a remote cottage where they have taken up residence. Then, the film ends as it appears that the infected are dying off (presumably because there are no more unaffected humans to eat), while the three survivors have been spotted by rescuers in a military plane, seemingly verifying Farrell’s earlier theory that the Rage virus had been confined to Britain via quarantine, with the rest of the world remaining unaffected.
Some reviewers felt that this ending was too optimistic to be consistent with the rest of the film, though we should remember that these survivors were “rescued” by military forces once before, with near-disastrous results, so some uncertainties about this ending still remain. In any case, the filmmakers actually envisioned three different, darker endings, two of which were filmed. All of these have Jim dying from his wounds. One of these was aired in U.S. theaters after the end credits, in response to widespread debates about the suitability of the original ending. In this alternate ending (which is also included in the Amazon Prime video streaming version of the film), Selena and Hannah take Jim to a hospital to tend his wounds, but he dies anyway. Gathering herself and resuming her earlier tough-girl stance, Selena grabs her assault rifle and leads Hannah back out into the mean streets of postapocalyptic Manchester.
To some extent, debates over the end of 28 Days Later are settled in the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, released in 2007 and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. The sequel stipulates that Farrell’s theory was correct and that the rage virus was contained within Britain. In 28 Weeks Later, NATO forces, led by the American military, invade Britain six months after the original outbreak in an attempt to begin to restore normalcy. In the end, though, all they manage to do is enable the virus to escape to continental Europe, with ominous implications. This ending seems perfectly designed to set up still another sequel, but that sequel has never appeared, apparently due to personal and business disagreements among some of those who hold the rights to the franchise.
The outcome of 28 Weeks Later suggests a critique of the American tendency to believe that all problems can be solved by sending in the military. Indeed, a similar, but more subtle critique of America’s attempts to exert global hegemony can be found even in the original 28 Days Later. Thus, noting how numerous aspects of Boyle’s film are clearly designed to place the film in dialogue with the American zombie films of Romero, Lindsey Decker notes how the film at the same time clearly establishes itselfas a British film that operates within the traditions of British cinema. For Decker, 28 Days Later is
“an extremely topical nightmare, resonating with multiple cultural discourses permeating the British consciousness at the end of the twentieth- and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Though not a straightforward allegory, the film deploys conventions of traditional British film genres like documentary, social realism and heritage cinema, while connecting to timely British cultural issues like animal activism and media effects discourse, to further situate itself within British filmic history and discourses around the film industry” (107).
For Decker, by acknowledging its debts to the precedents set by Romero while at the same time insisting on establishing its fundamentally British identity, 28 Days Later critiques the potentially negative impact on British cinema of the global dominance of American cinema.
28 Days Later also delivers a number of other political messages that resonate with its particular historical context. For example, any number of other readings of 28 Days Later have emphasized the fact that it was released just over a year after the 9/11 bombings, at a time when virtually any film with apocalyptic resonances was likely to be read at least partly as a response to those bombings. For example, in her discussion of the film, Stacey Abbott notes that it went into production before the disturbing events of 9/11, but that audiences necessarily often viewed the film through the optic of that real-world event. Indeed, Abbott acknowledges that the early-twenty-first-century surge in the production and popularity of zombie films in general was no doubt spurred partly by the 9/11 bombings and their aftermath. In addition, though, Abbott notes that the film includes a number of allusions to earlier British apocalyptic films, such as The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and The Day of the Triffids (1962). Finally, she notes that many of the film’s images of death, mayhem, and destruction were derived from some of the real-world horrors that so badly marked the twentieth century, even well before 9/11.
One of the most notable aspects of 28 Days Later is its depiction of the group of soldiers led by Major West, who in many ways seem almost as savage and dangerous as the swarming hordes of the infected. This motif really makes two different points. On the one hand, it makes a point about potentially negative inclinations within the military, as West seems almost to celebrate the coming of the apocalypse, because it gives him a kind of power he could never have had in the pre-apocalypse world. He thus displays an authoritarian devotion to his own power of precisely the sort that a military environment tends to encourage. Moreover, while West would at first appear to be the last remaining representative of legitimate order and authority in Britain, he badly fails to meet the challenges with which he is confronted, opting to do terrible things to perpetuate his power.
In addition, the issue of gender is introduced into this segment of the film as West shows his willingness to enslave Selena and Hannah in order to force them to service his men sexually (and thus make the men more amenable to his domination). This aspect of the film suggests the patriarchal inclinations of the military mind (and perhaps of the modern authoritarian mind in general), while also providing a stark reminder that rape culture has been normalized within patriarchy. At the same time, the films suggests that patriarchal attitudes are so deeply embedded in our modern societies that even a zombie apocalypse cannot dislodge them. Meanwhile, it is crucially important that the sinister masculine forces that threaten to force Selena and Hannah into sexual servitude—something that might more commonly be done by bands of marauding outlaws enabled by the postapocalypse collapse of authority—are themselves forces of authority, reminding us that their sinister attitudes are not an aberration from the order of patriarchal society but a systemic part of it.
Importantly, it is the working-class bicycle messenger Jim, hardly a figure of conventional authority, who emerges as a much more admirable alternative to West, whose very name perhaps suggests that he represents something fundamental to Western society. However, Jim is not really the film’s most effective alternative to West. That honor instead goes to Selena, whom the film presents as a strong, courageous female hero who is willing and able to fight effectively and to make difficult decisions quickly. Just as important, she is not portrayed as simply being able to do “masculine” things. She remains quite feminine and is also still able to show compassion for Jim and Hannah, while clearly relating to Jim in a romantic way and to Hannah in a maternal way. Being strong doesn’t mean she isn’t feminine, and being feminine doesn’t mean she isn’t strong. That Selena also happens to be black (with a Jamaican mother) can be taken as another plus, making her a representative not only of an oppressed gender but also of an oppressed race.
From this point of view, it is also worth pointing out that Private Mailer, kept in chains and made the subject of what are essentially medical experiments, is also black. Granted, he is infected, but his representation in the film absolutely cannot avoid evoking images of everything from the slave trade to the notorious Tuskegee experiments. It’s a disturbing image (and one that is arguably not politically correct), but it makes a similar point about the racial politics of the pre-apocalyptic world that the rape motif makes about gender politics. Once this connection has been made, the liberation of Mailer by the Irish Jim and the destruction of West by the black Mailer seems almost like a sort of return of the colonial repressed, as representatives of formerly colonized subjects rise up in protest against their white, British masters.
28 Days Later has (justifiably) been widely praised for its clever use of video and sound editing to produce high-octane action scenes on a low-octane budget. A closer look at the film, however, reveals that the film effectively uses these action scenes to deliver some important commentary on the state of British society in the early years of the twenty-first century, a commentary that also has broader implications for Western society—and even global patriarchal societies—in general. Boyle’s filmmight be a rip-roaring entertainment—in his review of the sequel, Peter Bradshaw referred back to the first film as a “huge, bloodthirsty, flesh-ripping, eyeball-gouging hit”—but it is also a complex and sophisticated work of art that draws upon several different cinematic traditions while also breaking significant new ground, both technically and thematically.
Abbott, Stacey. Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the Twenty-first Century. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
Botting, Fred. “Zombie London: Unexceptionalities of the New World Order,” Zombie Theory: A Reader, ed. Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 277–293.
Bradshaw, Peter. “28 Weeks Later.” The Guardian (May 11, 2007). https://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/may/11/horror.actionandadventure. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Decker, Lindsey, “Transatlantic Genre Hybridity in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later,” Horror Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016, pp. 95–110.
Jameson, Fredric. “Future City,” New Left Review 21, May-June 2003, pp. 65–79.
Lauro, Sarah Juliet. “Capitalist Monsters,” Zombie Theory: A Reader, ed. Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 103–110.
Rogers, Martin. “Hybridity and Post-Human Anxiety in 28 Days Later,” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette, Scarecrow Press, 2008, pp. 119–134.
 Botting has referred to them as “zoombies” to indicate their increased speed.
 See Rogers for a discussion of the implications of the status of 28 Days Later as a hybrid of science fiction and horror.
 The eminent social and cultural critic Fredric Jameson has suggested that the recent popularity of the postapocalyptic genre comes from the fact that so many sense the injustice of the capitalist system but are unable to imagine a viable alternative to it. So, unable to envision the end of capitalism via any sort of normal historical process, we become fascinated by visions of the destruction of civilization itself. As Jameson ultimately puts it, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (76).