On this week in 2003, 28 Days Later entered wide release in the U.S., prepping audiences for The Walking Dead and the zombie craze to come. The world is a lot different now than it was when Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror film burst onto the scene with its red-eyed, fast-running zombies. This was before Facebook, before Twitter, before Instagram. It was even before /Film. Yet now more than ever, the movie’s fictional “rage virus” is a potent symbol for our ever-evolving, rage-infected culture.

Zombies in the Ether

A coma patient wakes up in a world overrun by zombies. Before he understands the nature of this new nightmarish landscape, he wanders around a spooky, abandoned hospital. At one point, he picks up the phone, but the line is dead. Later he is seen as a lone figure against the backdrop of an abandoned city. Eventually, he bands together with other survivors and they soon learn that the real horror is other humans.

Resisting the urge to make a “Boom goes the dynamite!” joke (we’ll leave that to the voices of the /Filmcast), it’s enough to say that AMC’s The Walking Dead is in some ways just an extended riff on 28 Days Later, with Atlanta and the Georgia backwoods switched out for London and the meadows of England. The difference between these two zombie apocalypse tales, one longform, the other short-form, is the difference between a series of meandering novels and a single effective short story. Whereas the show has chosen to draw out its worldview over eight seasons of television and counting, the movie is able to tell you everything it thinks you need to know about humanity in the span of two hours.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly after the pilot episode of The Walking Dead aired, creator Robert Kirkman had this to say about the notable similarities between 28 Days Later, his own comic book series, and the TV show based on it:

“It was complete coincidence. I saw 28 Days Later shortly before the first issue of Walking Dead was released. That first issue came out in October of 2003 and 28 Days Later was released in the States in June of 2003. So we were working on our second issue by the time I saw it.”

Maybe zombies were just in the ether back in 2003. Whatever the case, it would be another seven years before The Walking Dead made it to the small screen and that might never have happened had 28 Days Later not first paved the way for the zombie resurgence on celluloid. 2004 saw the release of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Edgar Wright’s “zom-com” Shaun of the Dead, and those were just the first of many new mainstream zombie movies that followed on the heels of 28 Days Later.

15 Years (5,475 Days) Later

As a director, Danny Boyle was known largely for Trainspotting and other British black comedies prior to 28 Days Later. With The Beach, his adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel, he had started branching out into drama, working with his first big movie star, Leonardo DiCaprio, but then he went and made a curious career move, re-teaming with Garland to shoot a zombie movie digitally with a Dogme 95 cinematographer.

It just so happened to be one of the best horror films of the 2000s. These days, Boyle is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who is preparing to take on the tentpole of the 25th James Bond movie, while Garland has come into his own as a director to rival the young Ridley Scott with his back-to-back science fiction gems Ex Machina and Annihilation.

The faces in front of the camera have since gone on to great things, too. 28 Days Later introduced the world to Cillian Murphy, who would later don the Scarecrow mask in Batman Begins and a razor-lined newsboy cap in Peaky Blinders. Naomie Harris was also an unknown at the time but now she’s recognizable for such roles as Moneypenny in Skyfall and the crack-addicted mother in Moonlight (the latter of which earned her an Oscar nomination). Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston, both of whom play memorable supporting characters in the movie, were more established actors, but their stateside fame would increase, most recently landing them on Mr. Mercedes and The Leftovers, respectively.

As a zombie movie, 28 Days Later bucked standards in its treatment of the way zombies move. Forget walkers. These zombies were runners, more like the galloping dead. Films such as World War Z have since carried the fast-zombie ball further, but as late as 2008, you could still see self-identified zombie “purists” like Simon Pegg penning convincing essays for The Guardian about why zombies, as avatars of creeping mortality, should never be allowed to run. Even today, hardcore fans might want to play semantics and say 28 Days Later doesn’t truly belong to the zombie film genre (though perhaps one way of looking at it would be to say that it invented a new sub-genre).

If it isn’t a zombie movie, then what is it? Slate called 28 Days Later a zombie flick turned humanist parable. Starting with Night of the Living Dead (required viewing for horror newbies), the late George Romero proved adept at interweaving social commentary with his pioneering zombie films. If nothing else, 28 Days Later is a film that keeps that social commentary tradition very much alive.

The Tyranny of Toxic Rage

Cinematically, has there ever been a sturdier indictment of toxic rage than the concept of the rage virus? That’s the twist on zombie infection that 28 Days Later offers up. All it takes is one nasty bite or a single drop of blood falling into a person’s eye to activate the rage virus. This can make a loving father flip on a dime, lashing out at his daughter like an animal after he has just gotten done saying, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. I love you very much.”

Toxicity isn’t limited to fandom or online culture (though /Film Daily has a whole podcast episode on that if you’re in the mood for some listening therapy). It permeates all aspects of human society, from the home to the workplace to people’s public encounters. 28 Days Later starts out with footage of rioting and lynch mobs, then the camera pulls back to reveal a line of monitors playing this footage for a chimpanzee strapped to a table.

That’s an apt signifier for the way many of us experience the world in the 21st century. The Internet just happens to give people an easier platform for being confrontational, delivering drone-strike words without the consequences of a face-to-face engagement.

When asked what issues he was trying to explore with 28 Days Later, Boyle said:

“Social rage. There’s a very specific social intolerance of each other … It’s not just road rage. You get it in hospital waiting rooms and you get it in airplanes and airports. It seems to be a speed fixation. When it’s not delivered at the speed desired, people just lose it.”

Intolerance can certainly breed rage, but what Boyle also seems to be talking about here is people’s need for instant gratification. That’s something that has only gotten amped up more in the last decade and a half. The film’s fast-moving, outside-the-genre-box zombies are an extension of our own frantic minds. In that way, 28 Days Later is timelier than ever.

Neurotic singles used to identify with that cringe-inducing scene in Swingers where Jon Favreau’s character has the answering-machine meltdown and can’t exercise enough restraint to keep from compulsively calling back and leaving repeated messages. Now they’re more likely to identify with the scene in Chef where Favreau’s character sends out the tweet heard ‘round the world. Itchy trigger-fingers have evolved to become itchy Twitter-fingers.

As trite as it might seem to trot out social media as a movie monster, a damning picture of it does start to form when you view it through the blood-red filter of 28 Days Later. On the Internet, as in life, no one’s hands are clean. Irate comments and tweets are certainly lamentable, but in the rush to keep up with deadlines and the online news cycle, members of the movie blogosphere are sometimes as guilty as anyone else of perpetuating the rage virus. Behind a comfy keyboard, the same seemingly rational person who preaches civility in film discourse might then turn around and hurl expletives at a customer service rep or unleash a torrent of abusive words at a politician.

In the face of injustice, of course, some things do call for a measure of righteous indignation, perhaps even outrage…but that’s where being a decent human gets tricky. This is what makes the trajectory of Cillian Murphy’s character, Jim, in 28 Days Later so interesting and morally complex.

Tread carefully, apocalypse survivors. We are entering a dangerous new stretch of the zombie-training obstacle course now and you’ll want to be vigilant of the posted sign reading, “Spoilers ahead.” If you haven’t seen 28 Days Later or its sequel, pause here, watch them, and return. 

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