I am a big horror movie fan--ask anyone who knows me--but my least favorite kind of horror movie has to be the zombie sub-genre popularized by the George Romero "Dead" movies and the AMC TV series "The Walking Dead." I am just not interested in seeing a nihilistic view of humanity that suggests mankind has brought about the breakdown of society through its own greed and shallowness. It reflects an elitist view that says only a handful of people are worth saving because the rest of humanity are out to devour one another literally and figuratively. I have never agreed with the pessimistic outlook and subtext that pervades most zombie movies and, as such, have never responded to them.
Probably the only film in the subgenre that I truly liked was director Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" (2002). The movie depicts the effects of a contagious viral outbreak that causes the mass population in the U.K. to turn into violent, enraged monsters out to attack those who remain uninfected. The movie focuses on a quartet of survivors who attempt to find refuge amidst the horror and chaos surrounding them. These characters include a bicycle messenger named Jim (Cillian Murphy) who avoided being infected because he was lying in a coma in a hospital when the outbreak began; Selena (Naomie Harris) a pharmacist who lost her family in the outbreak and declares that she is determined to survive at all costs (even if it means sacrificing those around her the moment they become infected); Frank (Brendan Gleeson) a friendly cab driver whose wife was killed in the outbreak; and Hannah (Megan Burns) Frank's intelligent and emotionally mature teenage daughter.
Unlike other zombie movies, such as Romero's hateful "Land of the Dead" (2005), I don't think "28 Days Later" takes a dim view of humanity. "28 Days Later" always maintains a compassionate view of its characters and environment that never suggests that humanity brought the contagion on themselves, nor that they deserve suffering the consequences of what transpires. The four protagonists are good, decent people who deserve to survive, and who do not deserve to experience the loss and suffering they have endured. The most interesting and complex character in the group is undoubtedly Naomie Harris's determined Selena. At the outset, she is someone who has decided that "Staying alive is as good as it gets" and is initially unwilling to let Frank and Hannah join her and Jim because she feels that they will be a liability and slow them down. It is only after spending time with Jim (a good-hearted soul who is unwilling to throw anyone under the bus for self-preservation) that Selena's inherent humanity resurfaces. She becomes a protective older sister to Hannah (especially after Frank accidentally becomes infected and has to be killed) and falls in love with Jim. Selena even acknowledges to Jim that, after witnessing the caring and affection Frank and Hannah are still able to express to one another amidst all the chaos, she realizes she was wrong to have felt that staying alive at all costs was as good as it gets. The manner in which a person lives and chooses to survive also counts a great deal.
The scene in the movie that I am always moved by takes place later in the film after Frank has been killed and Jim, Selena, and Hannah are taken into custody by a platoon of soldiers who have fortified themselves inside an abandoned mansion. The soldiers have lured them to Manchester by a pre-recorded radio broadcast which claims a cure for the infection has been found and invites any survivors to take refuge with them. As it turns out, the soldiers broadcast the message in order to lure female survivors into becoming sexual slaves for the soldiers in order to rebuild the population. Selena takes Hannah into the restroom in order to give her drugs so that she will not remember being raped by the soldiers. When Hannah sees the pills and asks "Are you trying to kill me?," Selena responds "No, sweetheart. I'm making you not care. Okay?" I am always deeply touched by Selena's concern for Hannah mental well-being in this scene because it demonstrates how she has completely changed from when we first met her in the film. Later, when Selena encounters Jim and believes he might be infected, she hesitates to strike him with her machete because she now finds it difficult to knee-jerkedly kill someone she has grown to love. Selena no longer believes that survival at any costs is the only thing that counts, and has also grown to deeply care about the companions she has acquired along the way. As such, Selena has found a new family who she is willing to sacrifice herself to protect.
I liked how "28 Days Later" showed how humanity was still worth saving, and gave us people who are still able to enjoy the little things in life even when danger lurks nearby. One of my favorite scenes is the delightful sequence where Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah come upon an abandoned supermarket in the heart of London and happily shop for fresh groceries. After weeks of surviving on candy bars and soft drinks, the quartet finds themselves rhapsodizing on fresh fruit and other essentials they once took for granted. These are people who have not lost their sense of hope, which makes their efforts to survive all the more poignant and urgent for the audience who have grown to care about them. The middle portion of "28 Days Later" turns into a pseudo-road movie, as Frank navigates his taxi through London and out into the countryside towards Manchester. As Frank drives through wreckage and empty streets, director Danny Boyle stages scenes reflecting desolation and turmoil as we see images that allow us to comprehend the full extent of how this disaster has turned the U.K. upside down. We feel safe only when the taxi keeps moving down the road. An almost-cozy feeling settles in at this point as we realize that, if the world as we know it has to end, this is a good group of people to be with.
The DVD of "28 Days Later" shows several grimmer, alternate endings to the movie that Boyle considered before settling on the one he uses in the movie. The movie ends with Jim, Selena, and Hannah safely ensconced at a remote cottage where they have laid out a large cloth banner on the grass to say "HELLO" to a fighter jet flying overhead looking for survivors. The jet sees them, realizes that they are not infected, and calls for a rescue helicopter to come get them. It would have been satisfying enough if Boyle simply allowed these characters we have grown to love to survive, but he goes further and provides indication that the contagion has run its course and is eventually killing off those who were contaminated. We see infected zombies dying alongside the road. In so doing, Boyle shows respect and mercy for his audience by giving them hope that society will be given another chance to rebuild itself after this disaster. I think this ending demonstrates how Boyle has a better grip on the perseverance of mankind than does George Romero, whose movies seem to say that we're all doomed to be destroyed and, not only that, we deserve it. I believe that, even with all the turmoil happening in the world within the last decade, people still manage to pick themselves up and keep going no matter what. As such, I always consider "28 Days Later" an ironically hopeful, not pessimistic, comment on humanity and the world we live in.