a colorful field of flowers
Posted on June 27, 2022

Sleeping off the Fever: The Dream Aesthetics of 28 Days Later

Guest Post

Growing up, horror was a carefully curated genre in my house. No fiction books and certainly no video games. Movies were only allowed if it was clearly a man in a monster suit. As I grew older I also grew more unsatisfied with this arrangement. Starting in middle school, I took greater and greater risks to smuggle new experiences home from the library in the form of Stephen King as well as more varied horror movies. This just so happened to also be the era of the zombie resurgence, with the slacker nerds of Shaun of the Dead and the mean punk spirit of the Dawn of the Dead remake, both movies I love for different reasons. However, it’s the 2002 outbreak that has stayed chasing after me all these years.

My first time watching Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later on VHS late at night while home alone felt like a kick in the teeth. Throughout the journey across a desolate England, arms are severed and blood is vomited by the gallon as the infected howl in agony and fury. It’s nightmarish stuff, especially for the young and unexpecting. Upon its release and in the two decades since, you can’t approach an online mention of the film without encountering some argument over technicalities of what constitutes a “zombie” movie. It’s a discussion that will shamble on till the heat death of our star. But what keeps 28 Days Later above ground as more than just a footnote in the revitalization of the genre are its dreamlike aesthetics, nightmare or benign. Flower fields dissolve into watercolor smudges. Horses run untamed through the countryside. Alice in Wonderland and her red dress dissolve down a dark hall. It’s as if in response to the horror of the apocalypse, reality has buckled in on itself, allowing dream logic to dictate this new existence.

open green field with a person walking in the distance

Much of the film’s atmosphere can be attributed to Danny Boyle and his team’s use of digital video cameras. While the choice sacrificed video quality, it allowed for easy access to shooting around London in places that were only accessible for minutes at a time in order to accommodate heavy vehicle and foot traffic in the areas. But the dip in video quality is also an important aesthetic choice, frequently lending the film a sense of grit and intimacy, similar to a CCTV feed. Horror is the genre that benefits the most from analog flourishes, like grain from an overplayed tape or crackling in the soundmix.  Like The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and of course, Videodrome, 28 Days Later feels like an experience best left on a VHS player. It might be one of the last modern horror movies to feel so, even despite the use of digital film. But where horror films often use this tool to heighten tension or disgust, Boyle uses it to further peel away layers of realism, lining the visuals with the same feeling of a half-grasped dream.

28 Days Later toys with audience sensory expectations. Before its release, you didn’t expect a post-apocalyptic horror movie to look, sound, or even feel like this (except for maybe independent outliers like This Quiet Earth). The modus operandi is established early on in the movie’s most well known scene. After a quick introduction to the instigating infection, the movie brings us to its main protagonist, Jim (Cillian Murphy), nude and awakening on a hospital bed. The world he used to know is deserted and so he wanders London alone. As Godspeed You! Black Emperor weave their song “East Hastings” into a panic attack crescendo, the audience is shown a city that despite being devoid of human life, is nearly pristine. Now two years into COVID, such empty spaces are more familiar to us, especially from the early days of the pandemic. But with the movie’s release, still in the shadow of 9/11, the fear of being alone in the face of tragedy was overwhelming. It takes familiar iconography like Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster and turns them into looming gravestones. When Jim finally encounters other survivors, he pleads for an explanation, stopping short of asking if he’s dead, the look on his face revealing his fear that he has passed on into Hell.

overhead shot of landscape with green fields and a pond. The word Hell is overlaid on a green field.

The sense that Jim might be trapped outside of reality never fully leaves. Even as he encounters more and more people, his journey feels ready to sink into full dream logic at any moment. Not just content to toy around with the visuals, Boyle also heightens the atmosphere through editing, such as removing frames from a sequence to make the scene more jarring. This is particularly on display during the film’s actual dream sequence as Jim sweats through an Ambien-laced nightmare. It comes just after Jim has settled into a routine with a makeshift family and even though he’s eventually comforted by Brendan Gleeson’s surrogate father figure, it’s a discomforting reminder about the frailty of their situation. In the dream he has been abandoned once again and the fear of being alone is thick in Jim’s voice as he calls out for anyone, the scene repeating seconds of shots to disorient the viewer. It’s a familiar sense of powerlessness, a feeling that something has gone terribly wrong and you have as much impact in this world as a hand passing through water.

The finale, divisive like seemingly many of writer Alex Garland’s third acts, pivots into “man is the real monster” territory but regardless, the dreaminess persists. Predatory soldiers play house in a setting that looks like someone turned Pride and Prejudice into a warzone. Classical Roman statues tower over the characters, ancient legends trapped in their own agony. It all builds into a thunderstorm climax where rain falls with the weight of shotgun blasts. It’s another layer of noise on top of screaming men and a soundtrack of shrieking guitars. Up to this point, Jim has been reluctant to embrace violence but pushed into a corner, he realizes that in order to escape hell, he must find his own rage. In dreams, we are often reduced to our id, reacting purely out of instinct. And so Jim finally gives in to his new reality, fighting through the soldiers menacing his found family and waking only at being reunited with his love, Selena (Naomie Harris). It’s the culmination of his nightmare, as soon thereafter our heroes are rescued, but to live through such events guarantees that feelings of a false awakening will linger for a long time.

closeup of man's face. He appears to be concerned.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of 28 Days Later. Shaken as I was by my first viewing, it’s exactly why the movie has stayed with me. Not only did it greatly expand my horror horizons, but it also reshaped my taste in music, introducing me to the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Brian Eno. In the subsequent two decades, I watched the zombie craze rise and fall, with many of the movies putting a greater emphasis on action and gore but few living up to the atmosphere of 28 Days Later. It’s an important reminder that horror can be an array of experiences and something as simple as the isolation we all find in our dreams.

A Creative Writing MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie (he/him) is a poet and author interested in pop culture, technology, and beauty in the mundane. His writings have been featured in publications such as Drunk Monkeys, Bridge Eight Press, Sledgehammer Lit, The Daily Drunk, and Haywire Magazine. He can usually be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here 

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