28 Days Later

28dayslaterRichard Matheson should sue. For years his best idea has been making other people a ton of money, and I Am Legend, one of the top five or six horror novels of the 20th century1, is the unacknowledged inspiration for an entire subset of horror films, starting with Night Of The Living Dead.

I Am Legend is about a man who, at night, barricades himself against the ravenous undead, whom he hunts down and kills in the morning while they sleep. Night Of The Living Dead lost the central theme of the book, but it kept a lot of the trappings, most of which have been run into the ground by other, lesser filmmakers. Recently, this culminated in 28 Days Later, a zombie film that is only superficially original.

The set-up is that a monkey virus (“Rage”) is moving through the U.K. populace and may have spread to Europe and America. Jim, a bike courier, wakes from a coma to find that London is empty. The scenes of him walking the streets are memorable, and they lead to the most (in fact, I would say only) frightening scene, where a chapel filled with corpses is home to the Infected – victims of Rage who seek to kill the survivors.

The first logical problem is this: the Infected don’t eat their victims. They bite, but they don’t munch. Murder seems to be the purpose, and that makes a little sense for spreading the virus…but the Infected are not undead, they are merely Infected, thus their denotation. So why kill each other if… Let’s not belabor the point. Attempts at logic do not work; Romero’s films eschew the explanations since none can satisfy. 28 Days Later should have followed that course.

Most of the film is cribbed from the Romero text (the Matheson urtext). Jim meets up with a few survivors who kill the Infected by day and hide at night. Eventually, Jim and Selena (a tough-nosed cynic) run into Frank and Hannah, a father/daughter pair who follow a military broadcast out of Manchester. Along the way they go to abandoned stores to stock up on supplies, a sequence that is lifted from Dawn Of The Dead. Later, at an army base, Jim is horrified to see an Infected who is chained, a lot like Bub the ghoul in Day Of The Dead.

I say this, not to play fanboy-spotting-the-reference, but to demonstrate the way that 28 Days Later is too familiar. Other films have the same scope, and they have done a better job at some of the same things. But Days has a tiny bit of character: Jim finding out what happened to his parents, and Frank forbidding Hannah to take the pills that Selena the chemist has made to put them to sleep. These touches add life to a genre where humanity is often the last consideration.

But genre implies needs, and 28 Days Later does not meet the needs of the apocalyptic horror film. It is not scary enough. After the encounter in the chapel, the Infected start to look silly – they run and scream to very little effect. The last half-hour is predictable, too, and the implications that arise – that man’s brutality does not need a “Rage” virus – aren’t explored.

What all of these I Am Legends lack is a real consideration of the zombie. Like Romero’s Ghouls, the Infected are a brainless horde. They have no real reason or sympathy. As villains, they aren’t terribly effective because, once the viscera is done with, they’re like rats or cockroaches: disgusting but ultimately blameless. Romero solved this with the interaction of characters and themes that are complex. Other “Living Dead” films show that the teenage gore market is more important than actual horror filmmaking. 28 Days Later half-asses it, trying to generate sympathy for the Infected while meaning to scare us. It doesn’t work, and it keeps the film from being anything more than good. Which it is, though with some better thinking (and better scares), it might have been great.

1Okay, you forced it out of me. Here’s my list, in no particular order: I Am Legend, Richard Matheson; The Haunting Of Hill House, Shirley Jackson; Ghost Story, Peter Straub; From Hell, Alan Moore (I can include graphic novels, right?); The Shining, Stephen King; and The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Ramsey Campbell2. Read these books and you will have a new respect for the horror novel.

2Also: William Browning Spencer (hard to find, but spooky and fun); Joe R. Lansdale (The Nightrunners); Arthur Machen; Thomas Ligotti (short stories, most of which are inscrutable), and…that’s going too far a-field. Enjoy, or ignore.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com