A scraggy bloke in medical scrubs meanders across an empty Westminster Bridge; scattered litter the only remnant of civilisation as Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s doomy track ‘East Hastings’ plays in the background. No, this isn’t a scene from lockdown. It’s the opening moments of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece 28 Days Later, first released 20 years ago this week.
“I instantly knew the film was something very special,” Boyle tells NME via video call two months earlier. “I remember reading the first ten pages of [Alex Garland’s script], thinking ‘This is brilliant.’”
“It was like a quarter of a page,” he continues, gleefully recounting his first impressions of the story. “‘He wanders around London on his own’ and you just thought ‘Oh my God!’ What an amazing idea: a deserted London. It’s actually come to haunt us [since COVID]. We complain how overcrowded [cities] are and about the stress, and then in an instant, life as we know it in many, many different forms can empty them.”
The film stars Cillian Murphy as Jim, who awakens from a coma four weeks after a dangerous virus rages across the land – transforming swathes of the population into red-eyed, murderous zombies. After that atmospheric introduction in London, Jim journeys to Manchester with fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris), Hannah (Megan Burns) and Frank (Brendan Gleeson). They’re promised a cure via military broadcast, yet the ulterior motives of Major Henry (Christopher Eccleston) are soon laid bare, leading to a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse. Budgeted below £7million, 28 Days Later made more than £73m at the box office – a huge hit.
For Murphy, who’d spent the previous five years making short films and Irish indies, the success came just at the right time. “It opened doors for me,” he says over Zoom, while fixing himself a cuppa. “I managed to get meetings. I met Christopher Nolan through that, so it was massive for me.” Murphy and Nolan would go on to collaborate on six more movies together, including Batman Begins, Inception and the upcoming Oppenheimer – but he says he’ll always remember his big break.
“Jim was written as English – and I was doing a terrible London accent [in the audition],” recalls the Cork-born star. “It wasn’t really connecting but Danny kept asking me back, which was really nice.
“I was in awe of Danny, having grown up on [his films Shallow Grave and Trainspotting], you know, before I was ever an actor. Then they said ‘just play him Irish’ and when I played him Irish, I kind of unlocked something.”
After that, it got a lot easier for Murphy – or harder, depending on how you look at it. For much of his time on the project, Murphy describes “hundreds” of flesh-eating brutes – extras in tattered rags and gruesome make-up – “belting at” him across different sets.
“The world changed after [we finished shooting] because of the September 11 terrorist attack,” he continues. “We’d have never got access to Westminster Bridge, put half a fucking bus down there by Number 10 [Downing Street] now. We had total access. That would never happen now. That time is gone.”
Boyle agrees: “The central city security was almost unrecognisably relaxed compared to what you will understand as city centre security now. That changed with the millennia and we benefitted from deciding to shoot those early mornings in July.”
He adds: “We hired all these girls to be traffic marshals. One of them was my daughter who was 19 at the time and they’d say, ‘Would you just mind waiting here? We’re making a film…’ It’s just bizarre the way it worked.”
It wasn’t just the real world that was about to change. Consciously distancing himself from zombie tropes, Boyle ushered in a whole new breed of seething, rabid-dog ghouls, spewing blood from their eyes and mouths while sprinting after their victims. It was a far cry from the Night Of The Living Dead shufflers people were used to.
But who would play these radical monsters? “We wanted [the extras] to be athletes, with almost superhuman running abilities so that there was no way you could run away from them,” says Boyle. “We hired a load of ex-athletes to play a lot of the infected, so that we’d have this power in them that was really quite scary.
“[I was interested in] that moment of incandescent murderous fury that you have when you’re driving a car and you just lose it”, he adds. “Also, there’s a sequence in your death throes [when you have rabies] where you get this weird thing [scientists] don’t understand called ‘hydrophobia’, which is a fear of water.
“[We had] photos from the 1930s of people dying with rabies, and they’re being approached with a bowl of water and the expression on their face when they see this water is absolutely terrified.”
Two lucrative decades (think Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscars glory and the Peaky Blinders phenomenon) and one sequel later – 28 Weeks Later was released in 2007 with Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Renner, Imogen Poots and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo taking over the reins – could the two original players be tempted back to complete a trilogy?
“I think there’s a problem with that, in that I’m 20 years older…” laughs Murphy. “But every time I do bump into Danny or Alex I always mention it. Because I showed it to my kids recently, some Halloween about four or five years ago, and they loved it. It really stands up, which is amazing for a film that’s 20 years old. So yeah, I love the idea and it’s very appealing to me.”
Boyle, who most recently gave us a Sex Pistols biopic series, teases how Garland penned 28 Months Later a couple of years ago with “a lovely idea” at the centre of it. “I’d be very tempted [to direct it]. It feels like a very good time actually. It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about it until you just said it, and I remembered ‘Bang, this script!’ which is again set in England, very much about England. Anyway, we’ll see… who knows?
“It might come back into focus because one of the things that’s happening in the business at the moment is it has to be a big reason for you to go to the cinema, because there are less and less reasons. It’s hard for companies distributing films and for cinema chains to show films, they’re struggling to get people into the cinema unless it’s something like Top Gun: Maverick or a Marvel. But a third part would get people in, if it was half-decent.” We’d be there in a heartbeat.