28 Days Later opens well, and stays at the lofty standard it sets for most of its runtime. We open with some activists trying to break some apes out of captivity. Little do they know, despite warnings from one of the scientist, that these apes are infected with what we are told is the “rage” virus. One of the activists gets attacked and infected. Viruses always seem to get out, even when precautions are taken, don’t they?
We then move forward 28 days, and cut to a naked man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) who has been lying in a hospital for some time. He clearly doesn’t know what’s going on, but he finds clothes and begins wandering the hospital, and then the streets of London. Nobody’s there. The streets are deserted, the buildings are devoid of life — there’s nobody to interact with and nobody to tell him what is going on. We know that this “rage” virus is to blame, thanks to the opening scene. Jim doesn’t have this advantage.
He is eventually found by two other survivors, both of which know what’s up. The virus, we are told, has spread all around the world, or at least, to Paris and New York. I suppose that is enough diversity to count as everywhere. It is passed by blood, or something in the blood. If you get infected blood in your body, or if you are bitten, you become infected. Not immediately though; you have 10-20 seconds before you turn. At that point, you become an “infected”, someone who is essentially a zombie that can sprint. They also seem to have some sort of sentience, with one even yelling out “I hate you” at one point. These are creatures who can kill you even without a horde to back them up, and that makes them ever the more dangerous.
What becomes of 28 Days Later though? Well, it eventually turns into somewhat of a road movie. At least, for a while. We run into more survivors, a father, Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). They spend a lot of time on the road, with the final destination ending up as a military base which has been broadcasted on the radio as a safe house, free of infection. This is where the final third of the film takes place, and also when it stops living up to the high standard it set with its opening.
Don’t get me wrong, it still never becomes a bad film. However, when two-thirds of your film are great, and the final third is only okay, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. It’s a shame that the weakest part is at the end, and not in the middle. Films can often get away with this; a weak middle but a strong beginning and ending can still result in a good film. When the ending is the weakest part, you don’t leave with a good final impression.
The reason that the concluding third is the weakest part is two-fold. First off, it degenerates into an action film. The majority of the film has a feeling of isolation, of fear and of desperation. The ending doesn’t have any of this. It has bullets whizzing and blood gushing, but it doesn’t have any of the same feelings that the earlier moments had. It also tries to give its audience a small morality lesson that falls flat. The second reason is that it barely even features the infected that we’ve grown fearful of. There are two infected in the film’s final action moments, and neither of them are that important. I’ll admit that the events that transpire are clever in their development, but it’s such a large downward shift in tone that it’s hard to appreciate that. Instead, we notice that all subtlety is gone and that we’re just going to have a large-scale action scene that’s lackluster when compared to films that have the budget and the personnel to pull these off.
Even though the final third is weak, the first two-thirds of the film are great. They present a real sense of dread, while also dealing with the psyche of each of the characters we meet. The characters are actually the best part of the film, as they all have depth and a personality that influences their actions. This isn’t a film that gives you vague characters that allows their actions to be decided by plot convenience, but instead, they act according to their personality dictates, for better or worse. This is how good writing works. The dialogue isn’t always top-notch, but that’s less important. It’s serviceable and often funny — even with the bleak situation — and since the characters are so well-developed, it doesn’t matter as much if the words coming out of their mouths are as realistic as we’d like.
For what it’s worth, I was scared during parts of 28 Days Later. There aren’t many jump-scares, which I’m thankful for, but instead, you are drawn into the atmosphere. Knowing that, at any moment, a hungry, untiring infected will sprint towards our characters gives us this fear. And since, if they get infected themselves, they’re going to be off our screen within 20 seconds, we are always on our toes. You don’t want to see these people die, but you know that there’s a good chance they will, at some point anyway.
28 Days Later is, for the most part, great. The final act lets it down, but doesn’t drag it down far enough to dislike it, as there’s just too much good stuff that would go to waste. The first two-thirds should be celebrated as an example of how to create a great sense of dread and isolation even when there are enough personalities on-screen to keep us entertained. The ending turns into a lengthy action scene that is turns a smart, subtle film into a loud and gory one. Still worth watching, but the end is definitely a letdown.