There are plenty of fierce battles in the thriller 28 Days Later. Not all of them took place in front of the cameras.
A terrifying story of a violence-inducing virus run amok, the new film from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle is the product of a spirited debate over the movie's soul. Is 28 Days Later a mainstream scary movie? Or a highbrow art film that happens to overflow with zombies? If Boyle and his collaborators have made their decisions correctly, the answer could be that the film ends up being both things at the same time.
Acclaimed directors like Boyle historically shun the artistic ghetto of genre movies. But the 46-year-old Brit defies easy categorization. He refused to interrupt filming a low-budget family film called Millions in Liverpool to come to the United States to meet with Harrison Ford. And Boyle's last movie was a Leonardo DiCaprio film that many people didn't want to see - The Beach.
"I don't like complaining about it; it's what made me able to buy this house," Boyle says in a comfortable home in a hip London neighborhood. "In many ways, The Beach was a fantastic opportunity. But we just got bogged down in the scale of it and the politics of it."
Shot on digital video (and made for about half the $20 million DiCaprio collected for The Beach), 28 Days Later is possibly the summer's most disturbing movie. Thanks to both the SARS outbreak (which occurred after the film was completed) and worrisome headlines about genetic testing and animal rights, its story is frighteningly topical. Like good science fiction, its premise is rooted in science fact.
The story begins inside the Cambridge Primate Research Center, where animal rights activists uncover monkeys undergoing gruesome experiments. Moments before they free the primates, the raiders are urgently warned by a technician that the animals are infected with a terrible disorder and must not be loosed. The admonition is ignored, and one of the contagious animals immediately sets upon his liberators, and the viscera start to fly.
Those who witnessed Trainspotting's famous, drug-fueled dive by Ewan McGregor into Scotland's filthiest toilet, will not be surprised by the level of visual shocks in 28 Days Later.
"I love all that," says Boyle, who hurt his knee directing Millions and had to direct that movie from a wheelchair for three days. "I find it's really easy to do," he says, limping around his home. "It's much more difficult being positive and optimistic."
In its formation, 28 Days Later was inspired by seemingly schizophrenic ideas. Screenwriter Alex Garland and producer Andrew Macdonald were more inclined to make a zombie movie in the spirit of director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and novelist John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids). Boyle leaned toward a parable about paranoia, consumerism and rage that, if anything, referenced not earlier horror movies but the photography of Andreas Gursky.
"Alex and Andrew initially wanted it to be a genre film," says Boyle. "And our battles were constantly about my trying to drag it away from them. My big thing about a genre piece is they tend not to be emotionally involving. You're just waiting for people to die. Whereas I wanted you to feel for this kid, Jim."
"I start with genre," Garland says. "Danny begins as far away from genre as he possibly can. At the beginning, we would really be knocking heads."
The film aims to be far more thoughtful than the typical fright fest and takes several surprising turns. Even as the film attempts to honor the conventions of horror, 28 Days Later often ignores them. People wander into dark rooms. They make too much noise, like yelling "Hello?" all the time. They change car tires in abandoned tunnels.
Where other filmmakers might have their heroes enjoy a camp out in any random park, Boyle sets his 28 Days Later sleepover in the ruins of Waverly Abbey, a 12th-century British abbey, which reinforces the movie's themes about civilization's end.
The film's conclusion presented the chief storytelling hurdle. "It's impossible to end apocalypse movies because the beginning is the ending," Boyle says. "So where do you go?"
Boyle hopes the film's artistry will help attract the kind of moviegoers whose idea of a good scare is seeing that the concession stand has run out of soy milk lattes.
It's natural to see the film as a parable about AIDS, Ebola fever, mad-cow disease or out-of-control science. Yet Boyle thinks 28 Days Later is finally a movie about rage.
In fact, Boyle says one of the biggest influences on the film was the crafty British criminal Kenneth Noye, who was involved in the theft of 3 tons of gold ingots and killed an undercover police officer. Noye served little jail time for the two crimes and kept the gold hidden. He was a free man - until another motorist cut him off in a traffic circle.
"He got out of his car, got a knife and killed this guy. In front of his girlfriend. And the police finally had him," Boyle says. Noye was sentenced to life. "I used to tell that story to everybody who played an infected person in the movie: It's that moment right there, where you just forget everything.
"The whole point of the film is that it's called an infection, but the reality is that rage is part of our nature," Boyle says. "Science thinks it can take the bad out and leave a better human. And in fact you just leave an incomplete human."
John Horn writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.