The Crazies (1973)
Directed by George Romero
Starring Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry
28 Days Later (2002) 1/2
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a horror film about a small band of survivors in Britain trying to stay alive 28 days after a viral apocalypse. Not so much an update to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, its closest relative would be Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies. Both films concern an outbreak of a virus created by the government, both films have the virus in question causing rage and madness in the infected, and both films share a strong distrust of authority (the military), painting the enemy as both the contaminated and the army. The major difference between the two relates to stages of the viral apocalypse – while Boyle’s film shows us what happens a month after the outbreak, Romero’s film shows us what happens during the outbreak itself.
As The Crazies begins, little Billy is trying to scare his sister by pretending to be a monster, but it turns out the real monster is daddy, who goes mad, kills mommy, and then sets fire to the house. It turns out that a secret bio weapon has been accidentally released into a small town’s water supply by the military which either turns victims mad, or kills them. (The “bug” in question is referred to half the time as a virus, while the other half it’s called a “bacteriological weapon” – well, which is it?) The rest of the movie concerns a small group of confused citizens fighting off the army’s attempts to quarantine them, intertwined with scenes of an inept military trying to contain the situation.
The Crazies was Romero’s second horror film, made a few years following Night of the Living Dead, and it definitely bears a resemblance to that film given its plot, but this movie is much more political, commenting on the debacle going on in Vietnam at the time. But that’s not what dates the picture (it could be shown today, substituting Iraq) – the main problem with the movie is its execution. I love strange, threatening guys in white suits and masks as much as anyone, but much of the film is content to stick us in the middle of a military bureaucratic nightmare as soldiers and medical doctors spend as much time fighting red tape and inefficient procedures as much as the virus itself. It’s like being stuck inside a day-long corporate executive meeting, where a lot of people are shouting but nothing is getting done. It’s nice to hear Richard France shout “Stick it up your big, fat electronic ass!”, and nobody can deny the grand commentary on society and the Vietnam war, but the mostly bland performances and extremely low budget (I couldn’t understand the dialogue half the time due to the muddled Dolby 2.0 soundtrack) get in the way of caring. Given some eye-opening scenes, like the old lady who stabs a soldier to death with a knitting needle and then goes right back to knitting, a father/daughter incest subplot (daughter being played by cult film heroine Lynn Lowry – who later ends up in the similar-but-superior Cronenberg movie Shivers), and the ironic ending involving one of our heroes with natural immunity to the virus, the movie’s unfocused editing style and uninteresting characters makes things all the more frustrating.
Fast forwarding about 30 years, we come to 28 Days Later, which improves upon The Crazies in many areas, but at the same time doesn’t offer a message ambitious enough as The Crazies (or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, another obvious influence). Here we meet Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bike courier who wakes from a coma a month after a deadly virus infects the entire city of London. Some of the movie’s best scenes involve the sequence where we see Jim walking around the eerily empty city. He discovers soon enough, however, that he isn’t alone, and his situation becomes one of basic survival. Meeting up with a female survivor (Naomie Harris), a father (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter (Megan Burns), the foursome make a break for Manchester after hearing a recorded radio message from the military. The middle act of the film covers their trip to reach the military blockade while trying to avoid getting attacked or infected; the final third of the film tells what happens when they arrive to find a less than pleasing situation involving soldiers who are just as dangerous as the infected.
It is this third act that is slightly disappointing – after going through a living hell involving raging infected maniacs, the movie bogs down into a battle of wills between Jim and the military (like in Day of the Dead). While Boyle stirs up some genuinely creepy scenes and gives us a proper atmosphere (helped along by the peculiarities of the digital format he shot the movie on), 28 Days Later fails to build up to the grand conclusion that you are led to believe is coming. (But perhaps, in retrospect, there is no grand conclusion in these kinds of movies – you either return from the world of the animal back to civilization, or civilization is completely consumed). However, if the message of the film is simply one of man being little more than an beast at his core (and the possibility to triumph over that instinct), that’s all well and good, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The movie seems to work better as a paranoia-laced cautionary tale against tampering with nature (again, nothing new). I could just be nitpicking – it’s a superior work to The Crazies (but not to the Dead films), with good performances, and until the final third act, it’s quite eerie.
Both DVDs have some interesting special features. The Crazies has audio commentary by George Romero as well as an interesting mini-documentary about Lynn Lowry, including interviews. 28 Days Later gives us audio commentary by Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland and some alternate endings (the original ending still being the best, and incidentally, not because of its hopeful message).
- Bill Gordon