Revisiting the cult "zombie" film on the big screen, with commentary from the composer
Hoodihoo Productions' recent Throwback Thursday: Zombie House Party & 28 Days Later 15th Anniversary Screening (reviewed here) provided a welcome opportunity to revisit director Danny Boyle's 2002 "zombie" film, on the big screen with state-of-the-art projection courtesy of the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, with composer John Murphy on hand to answer questions about providing music for the "post-apocalyptic road movie."
When 28 Days Later hit screens, it was lauded by enthusiastic critics as the antidote for the doldrums into which the horror genre was perceived (rightly or wrongly) to have slipped in recent years. Though not a box office blockbuster, the film was successful enough to launch not only a sequel (28 Weeks Later) but also a new wave of zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, World War Z) and television shows (The Walking Dead, Z Nation, iZombie), which continues to this day. The irony of course is that 28 Days Later is not a zombie film: its monsters are not the living dead but carriers of the "Rage Virus," which turns its victims into mindless, homicidal maniacs. Nevertheless, the film's impact is unquestionable, and it is fascinating to view it in light of all that has followed over the ensuing decade and a half.
The question-and-answer session was moderated by actor Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) and former Fandango editor-in-chief Chuck Walton, who asked some sharp questions and kept the conversation moving. Murphy began by describing how he got the gig: "Danny Boyle called me and said, 'I'm doing this movie. Nobody wants me to make it. Nobody is going to want to distribute it. And nobody's going to see it. So we can do whatever we want."
Boyle sent Murphy his first cut of the movie, which Murphy termed "a masterpiece...but unwatchable," because the bleak story line (by screenwriter Alex Garland) offered "no hope." Murphy recalled telling Boyle, "The film doesn't need music." Instead of a conventional score, Murphy spent the next few weeks recording radio static, electronic sound, and other effects that could be combined to create am ambient soundtrack.
However, the plan changed when 28 Days Later started getting some pre-release buzz. Boyle called Murphy again, this time to say that people who had seen the film were calling it a zombie movie and thought it could be a hit. "We never thought of it as a zombie movie; we called it a post-apocalyptic road movie," Murphy recalled.
Suddenly, 28 Days Later had gone from being a small art house movie to a potentially crowd-pleasing horror film. To make the transition, it needed a musical score. Murphy composed some cues; though he took an unorthodox approach, avoiding music in obvious places in favor in favor of musical interludes during the lulls between attacks, he expressed dissatisfaction with some of the results. (Murphy didn't specify, but presumably he was referring to the conventional action-thriller music in the first act, which sounds at odds with the tone of the rest of the film and the rest of the score.) The approach paid off with a worldwide box office take of over $82-million for a film that cost only $8-million to produce.
After the interview, Kwanten thanked distributor Fox Searchlight for the "pristine" print of 28 Days Later. The irony is that Boyle famously (or infamously, according to some cinematography geeks) shot the movie on digital video as a way to "prove" that anyone could shot a low-budget movie without having to rent expensive, professional film cameras. Transferred to 35mm film for distribution, 28 Days Later nevertheless resembles a low-budget video when projected on the big screen. Charitably, the film's low resolution and blurry blobs of light are the 21st century equivalent of old-fashioned 16mm film, which lent a grainy but effectively grim aura to low-budget horror films of a previous generation.
The exception is the film's happy ending, which (like the music score) was added to increase the appeal of 28 Days Later to a wider audience: filmed in 35mm, the coda is sharp and colorful, which can be read in one of two ways: either the nightmare has ended and things are starting to look good, or it's too pretty to be believed - a dream tacked on to comfort audiences who might not have accepted the downbeat original.
Back in 2002, I thought that 28 Days Later was slightly overrated - good but not absolutely brilliant. Revisiting it at the Saban Theatre 15 years later confirmed my opinion. The prologue, in which animal rights activists inadvertently unleash the Rage Virus, opens the film with a bang, and the initial mystery when Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in a hospital to find the world depopulated is intriguing. However, the middle section meanders a bit, as if unsure of what story to tell in a world where the only goal is day-to-day survival. It's really the third act that achieves critical mass, when our characters arrive at a military compound whose promise of safety is just a way to lure women for breeding stock.
This would become the template for almost every season of The Walking Dead: Rick and company find "sanctuary" - which turns out to be a front for something evil. In fact, it's interesting to note that the popular AMC television series lifted its opening from 28 Days Later; the film, fortunately, is able to explore its premise and reach a satisfying conclusion in less than two hours, instead of padding itself out over the course of eight increasingly tedious seasons.
The other noteworthy aspect of 28 Days Later's conclusion is the way it inverts the usual horror movie scenario, in which helpless victims cower indoors while the monster roams outside, occasionally bursting through a door or shattering a glass window to claim another victim. In Boyle's film, Jim, after being exiled from the military compound, goes full-blown homicidal psycho on the sleazy soldiers who want to rape Jim's female friends (including one underage girl). In one of the great climaxes in the history of the horror genre, Jim cleans house like Jason on steroids - a horrifying image of rage that has nothing to do with a virus - and it's a small miracle that Selena (Naomie Harris) sees past his blood-stained visage to determine that he is not infected, sparing his life (when earlier she had threatened to kill him without hesitation if he turned).
This is a moment when the characters' survival is truly earned; the downbeat original ending (in which Jim dies of a gunshot) may have had a certain consistency with the script's overall nihilism, but the slightly cornball happy ending is more satisfying. (The print at the Saban had both endings: the happy ending played as part of the film proper; the downbeat ending was appended after the credits, preceded by a subtitle asking, "What if it happened like this?")
Ultimately, I'm glad I never revisited 28 Days Later on home video: even though it's digitally captured footage might look better on the small screen, the theatrical experience of seeing the film 15 years later was worth the wait, especially in terms of revealing how well the story holds up in light of the decade and a half of spin-offs and follow ups. I still think that the sequel 28 Weeks Later is superior, expanding on the scope and themes of the original, but hopefully, 13 years from now, Hoodihoo Productions will present a "28 Years Later" anniversary.
More in this series:
- Review: Throwback Thursday - Zombie House Party & 28 Days Later
- Retro Review: 15th Anniversary Screening of 28 Days Later w/John Murphy