What we have here is a serious kick in the butt of the zombie genre that we know and love. In 2002, the concept had been done to death and was soon running out of fresh ideas and new blood. Danny Boyle, the legendary British film maker decided to take the basic premise and inject some fresh thought and totally change the ideology forever. It was a difficult task. How does a director face up to Romero’s legacy and come out the other side with something credible? We’ll, it’s something which Boyle does time and again with genres, creating stunning movies which stand up in their own right amongst the greats, always working in a different area and genre and always knocking out something special. I’d even go as far as to say that no director has achieved such a diverse cross section of films since Kubrick. High praise.
A young man, Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in a hospital only to find the city of London deserted. Walking the streets, trying to make sense of it all, he’s soon set upon by crazy, blood thirsty zombies. Making his escape with the help of Frank (Brendan Gleeson), his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) and fellow survivor Selena(Naomi Harris), the reasons are explained as to what as happened. A deadly virus, ‘Rage’ tested on animals in a lab had escaped, causing those infected to transform into zombies. These are zombies, but not as we know them. This is different. They are not dead, they are just rabid, wild humans with an unstoppable desire to kill.
A radio signal leads the team to a small military blockade outside Manchester, controlled by the deranged Major Henry West (Christopher Eccelston) This is where the film turns from survival against the wild things, to facing the horror of humanity and the brutality and lengths that mankind can go to. This is one of Boyles strengths as a film maker. His characters are rich and realistic working with a stunning script from Alex Garland. We see this with many of his films, a strong balance of a darker side of humanity which manifests and creates monsters, even without a virus. The acting is perfect also. Harris and Murphy both young at the time, who have now grown into fine actors. Another fine trait of Boyles, recognising talent, and nurturing to maturity. Eccleston is brilliant here as always.
There are plenty of nods of the head in the Romero direction. The scene at the supermarket, jovial and light with comedy soundtrack and later on at the petrol station, Jim finds an infected child which he kills, reflects the air hanger scene in the original Dawn. We also get a quality eye gouge as a tip of the hat in Fulci’s direction. But these are all small appreciative inclusive moments which compliment Boyles work. He admires what has come before, but this is his film, made his way and it’s about as good as it gets. It’s terribly British on all accounts, from the use of a London Taxi as the vehicle of choice, to the military camp set up in a huge country manor house. A good balance of accents across all of the characters.
A few further points to note. The brilliant use of ‘East Hastings’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor as an eerie atmospheric soundtrack which not only lifts the film and creates atmospheres, but also reflects the feeling that the country was in when this film was made. Finally, there is the notion that none of this film is real. With Cillian’s character in hospital for an operation on his head, the huge scar visible for most of the film, is this all just a dream and figment of the imagination of a dying man, clinging to what’s left of his own thoughts? Finally, shot on digital video, this was a curious choice as many scenes, once blown up on a huge screen at a cinema looking shockingly grainy and distressed. A hand held style also made the film look and feel like a home made video diary. It was a controversial decision, used pre happy slappy and cloverfield. But here, works a treat, even now, some years later, the look and feel of the film is beautiful in a decayed fashion, obviously complimenting is subject matter, alongside the mirrors of London council flats and an English manor. All works very well. This is a great film on many levels.