28 Days Later is a British horror/science-fiction film released in 2002. This was the first screenplay written by Alex Garland, who later wrote Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Ex Machina, among others. 28 Days Later was openly inspired by Dawn Of The Dead and the film has a similar feel.
The description of the film via IMDB states: “Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary.”
3 lessons learned reading 28 Days Later are:
- Camera directions in the script may be disregarded.
- Integrating a (well-planned) mythology can spin a genre.
- Subversion of expectations creates audience trust.
Before the audience meets the protagonist, they are shown the backstory behind how the infection spread. Animal activists break into a testing facility containing chimpanzees, and a doctor tells them to stop because the animals are infected.
“Infected with what?” they ask.
They release the animals regardless and are attacked.
Shortly after this scene, we are introduced to Jim, a man in a hospital bed who wakes up after being in a coma. The hospital is deserted. The streets are deserted. An eerie silence hangs over the city. Jim makes his way to a church and wanders inside. This is where he — and in turn, the audience — sees infected humans for the first time. Bloody. Angry. Intense. They chase him, and there is an explosion…he is rescued. Sort of. Two other survivors, Mark and Selena, take him in, and Jim gets to know a bit about them. Selena explains what happened and what they know about the infection being passed through blood.
In the screenplay, Garland wrote, “Selena starts to tell her story, and as the story unfolds we see the images she describes.” In the final cut of the film, this is absent. Film is a collaborative medium, and director Danny Boyle chose to keep the focus in that room, on Selena telling her story. A wise choice, in my opinion, because cutting away to flashbacks or news footage would detract from the audience’s connection to these characters.
Jim’s backstory is explained organically, and the audience doesn’t need to know all that much about him. We understand and sympathize with him because of his choices, the way he treats others, and because he is our window into the story.
One interesting aspect of 28 Days Later is the “mythology” of how the infection is spread and how it affects people. The “rage” bit is intriguing and different, and the transference through blood is logical.
The following excerpt comes from the part of the story when the four main characters are driving to a safe place and get a flat tire as a group of Infected close in on them. They replace the tire and…
They lunge back into the cab, just as the nearest Infected slams against the back window.
As the cab races off, Jim leans out the window.
(at the Infected)
Frank slams his foot down, and they tear off.
EXT. TUNNEL EXIT – NORTH – DAY
The cab races out.
Honey, you’re a cab driver’s daughter.
Garland writes the action scenes with panache, with plenty of spacing to allow the reader to breathe and absorb what’s happening. For a first-time screenwriter, he paces the film brilliantly and allows for moments of humor and lightheartedness. In these moments, the audience is able to connect to the characters rather than just following bloody action.
Subversion of expectations throughout also led me, as a viewer, to wonder what was going to happen next. I felt like I was in good hands while reading the script (and watching the film) and trusted that though I did not know what would happen next, it would be satisfying, emotionally and thematically.
An example of subverted expectations in the 28 Days Later screenplay is when the four main characters camp out in a field and all is quiet. They eat, laugh, and bond. Two of the characters take sleeping pills. I expected an attack to happen right there. Yet nothing happened. They got some sleep and in the morning, continued on toward their destination.
Solid structure, organic character development, and exceptional pacing mark 28 Days Later, a cut above.
Thank you for reading!