Since George Romero’s trailblazing 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, zombies have remained a strong force in entertainment as mindless, shambling corpses with a taste for flesh. While the premise is scary enough, zombies have been degraded in the public eye from legitimate threats to easy targets for the protagonist to easily dispose of. This trope changed with Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film, 28 Days Later.
The film begins with a hospital patient, Jim—played by Cillian Murphy—waking up from a coma in an empty hospital. After leaving the hospital, Jim discovers, to his horror, that he has woken up 28 days after the Rage Virus, a fast-acting pathogen that turns its hosts into murderous, adrenaline fueled monsters, has completely decimated England.
This iconic opening scenario is more than just a clever way to introduce the disaster. Jim’s coma has caused him to not only be unaware of the apocalyptic event but also be totally unaffected mentally or emotionally by the weeks of chaos that overtook his world.
Other plague survivors, including Selena—played by Naomie Harris—and Mark—played by Noah Huntley—demonstrate the toll of surviving a world where society has collapsed. The survivors have abandoned any hope of a return to normalcy, instead opting to survive at any cost, even if it means killing or abandoning other people in the process.
Part of what makes this narrative work so well is the infected people’s intimidating nature. The infected sprint at survivors and can rush and ambush their prey with ease. The infection also spreads incredibly easily; a healthy individual can turn in less than 20 seconds if exposed to one drop of infected blood.
While slower zombies require large numbers to be dangerous, the infected in 28 Days Later can attack in packs of two or three and still overwhelm a group of survivors. This really adds to the stakes of the survivors’ plight as well as gives a sort of justification to the cynical outlook of those left uninfected.
Despite the hopelessness of his situation, Jim is perturbed by the bleak outlook of survivors he travels with. Because his coma spared him the harsh realities of the infection, Jim has a sense of optimism and empathy that are lost to others in his group. Jim is a great protagonist because the audience can identify with his devotion to the idea that hope, and normalcy, can prevail.
While the thought of a rabies-like virus eradicating humanity is a stretch, it’s natural and common for people to succumb to the stresses brought about by their circumstances. Stress is a universal burden that can often take a significant toll. People may take time away from their loved ones, forgoing happiness in order to succeed or even make ends meet.
The problem with allowing the object of stress to become one’s main focus is that it can often perpetuate the very thing one is trying to avoid. Like its name suggests, the Rage Virus brought out the worst rage humanity has to offer, not just in the infected but also in the people who do unspeakable things in the name of survival.
If someone sacrifices all their time and energy into one thing, it can backfire by essentially becoming an endless loop. Constantly working for money or a good GPA doesn’t mean anything if there is never any time to enjoy all the time between work.
Furthermore, the film’s use of Jim as an outsider also illustrates the profound impact an outside view can have one someone’s life. Just as Jim’s outside perspective allowed him to question the cynical outlook of his fellow survivors, an outside perspective can help people be less carried away by their problems and have a sense of optimism.
While zombie movies can often be mindless fodder for violence, 28 Days Later shows how these movies can be both intelligent and scary. The film utilizes the idea of an apocalyptic infection to show how cruel and empathetic people can be when things go wrong. While it may be easy to collapse in times of hardship, it’s always important to recognize the importance of staying positive.