Review: 28 Days Later – Beware, Spoilers Ahead

“28 Days Later (Widescreen Edition)” (Danny Boyle, Toby James)

When I first saw this movie on the big screen, with my friend Natalie – I was really impressed. The scenes of empty London in particular were stunning in a movie theatre. Overall I felt that the ways in which Boyle created tension were compelling. Rather than depend on spurious surprises, Boyle created an atmosphere where significantly less happened that one might expect . . . and every time something didn’t happen, our fears were heightened to an even greater extent at what would happen next. One of the first films to utilize a they hyper-kinetic style that has since become de rigueur in horror films–you know the style, that choppy, frames have been cut kind of look to things like 30 Days of Night etc. At the time, it was gulpingly fresh and got your heart pounding with fear and energy. That the “zombies” were infected and damn fast gave the film a flavor unlike most “zombie” movies. Between the facts that there was actual character development, that the look of the film was intriguing and fresh, and that Boyle’s thematic statement about rage was, if a bit heavy-handed, at least somewhat thought-provoking, I genuinely enjoyed the movie.

Then J and I watched it several weeks ago and her reactions, specifically to the end sequence after Jim has slaughtered the soldiers, made me rethink my reactions. While I was busy half-heartedly defending the movie from charges that it devolved into annoying sexual stereotypes, I started to think that J was right and that the end sequence, were Jim saves the women, then wakes up to a cozy little cottage and the women at the sewing as a cop-out and decidedly unsatisfying.

The DVD extras made it all clear though, that the filmmakers released the movie with an ending that actually works against the thematic intent and the alternative endings are significantly better from an artistic and story point of view. Basically, in every other alternative ending (and the DVD includes three, two of them actually filmed and the other storyboarded with narration from Danny Boyle and his writing partner/producer), Jim dies.

And with the inclusion of one other deleted scene–where Jim is actually running with a pack of the infected as they break into the building where the military has set up base–those endings tie everything together: the films begin and end with Jim in a hospital works incredibly well in terms of the visuals and the fact that Jim deliberately taps into a murderous, homicidal rage in order to save Selena and Hannah and pays the price brings the thematic issues to an elegant endpoint. As the audience identifies with Jim, we understand the “rightness” of his actions when he kills the soldiers, after all these are the men who were going to rape a woman and a young girl. Jim, however, gives up his humanity in exactly the same way that Major Henry West (Chris Eccleston) has when he promised Selena and Hannah to his men. Jim may do it in a noble cause, and he may do it only temporarily, but he lets the fire of murder course through his blood and does not simply rescue or even kill, but murders a number of the soldiers with a bloodlust that clearly links him to the infected. The audience, because we identify with Jim, become complicit with his violence. In the theatrical release, both Jim and the audience gets to indulge in this bloodlust fantasy with no consequences. In the alternative and filmed endings, however, both Jim and the audience pays a price for the violence enacted. His death is what fulfills the movie. Even if we feel that Jim had no alternative, his actions become that much more tragic, that much more affecting. Additionally, we are left with two women who, after trying to save him, are left to survive on their own and, as Hannah takes a pistol into her hands, hefts its weight and contemplates Jim’s dead body, the astute viewer will have no doubt that if anyone can survive an infected England, it will be these two women.

Beyond the artistic merit of the movie–and if you don’t mind horror, suspense and violence I do recommend this movie–all of these raises an interesting set of considerations. Namely, with the possibility of multiple endings to movies, with the increasing expectations of deleted and alternative scenes on DVDs, where lies the “real” or “authentic” movie? For me, the alternative ending of 28 Days Later that ends with the women walking down the hospital corridor as the door shuts behind them is the “real” ending to the movie, even if it isn’t the one that was seen by most people, including myself until the DVD extras. The alternative is real in an artistic way, it satisfies my aesthetic sensibilities to such a degree that the “real” ending seems false and inauthentic. Indeed, I wish there were a way (and I guess I could do this for myself by using some video editing software), to watch the film with my favorite ending instead of having to see it as an extra feature. I would, when sharing the movie with someone, like them to see the ending I think of as superior.

If the author is dead, are we now seeing the death of the text? Or at least the text that makes any pretense toward authority? Or, if not a death of text, a mutation of text? Text as multi-headed hydra? And not in any post-structuralist reader-as-author-of-meaning sort of way, but the text as always containing iterations of itself, like fractal math. Chose your own adventure kind of stuff. I came up against this issue when working on my Aliens paper (yes, still waiting to hear about when the book is going to actually be published!), and using Cameron’s extended cut instead of the theatrical release as my text. But in the case of Cameron’s movie, the alterations merely fleshed out and illuminated his thematic arcs, while in 28 Days Later, the various endings change the thematic meaning of the movie in significant ways.

While I have seen other alternative endings or deleted scenes with a major impact on what I thought of a movie, the alternative endings on the 28 Days Later DVD create the greatest level of dissonance between the movie I watched and the movie I created in my head after watching the extra features. If you have seen this movie before, in the theatre or without watching the extras, I would highly recommend watching it again and immediately watching the alternative endings after the movie’s end. If you haven’t seen it at all, I would still recommend watching it and the DVD extras. Even if some of the surprise is gone, I stand my by original reaction to seeing it in the movies: it is a fascinating movie to watch and certainly worth your time.

And by the way, I would be really curious if any of you have experienced other DVD extras that radically changed how you understood or viewed a movie. Drop a comment with what the movie was and how the extras changed your opinion or thoughts. Feel free to play fast and loose with the spoilers if you’d like. I’m never one to get picky about knowing about the plot or characters before seeing a movie.

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