The Best Horror Movie of 2002: 28 Days Later

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The Best Horror Movie of 2002: 28 Days Later

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Another solid year overall, 2002 is marked by the continued international prominence of Asian horror cinema, especially from Japan. At the same time, the first of the prominent U.S. remakes, The Ring, brings a sudden interest in J-horror stateside, heralding the beginning of a period that will see English-language remakes of many prominent films, from The Grudge and Dark Water to The Eye and Shutter. As is often the case in horror fads, these types of films will have a few years of saturation before more or less disappearing afterward.

In the fall of 2002, though, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring was hailed as a revelation in horror, and it really is a film that is both stylish and effective—particularly its opening establishment of the “cursed tape,” and the “I saw her face” cutaway, which had theater audiences jumping out of their seats. Naomi Watts provides one of the genre’s best central performances as investigative journalist Rachel Keller, who dives into the history of the tape while working against a ticking clock for herself and her son. With memorably creepy, darkly shaded, green-and-blue-tinged visuals, The Ring built an expressively creepy, morose visual identity, which would be lifted by many lesser, PG-13 horror films through the rest of the decade—as would the aesthetic of the ghost girl Samara, who memorably emerges from the TV screen in the film’s big conclusion. In the years that have followed, The Ring experienced a degree of critical blowback, as is common when a film can be described as the progenitor of a particular sub-genre style, but Verbinski’s remake deserved the attention it received in the U.S.

This year also gives us one of the best modern werewolf films in the form of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, a movie that does away with the more sympathetic aspects of most werewolf stories in the vein of The Wolf Man, instead telling its story entirely from the point of view of a group of soldiers under assault by an entire coven of lycanthropes. In the process, it lifts some basic zombie movie tropes from the likes of Night of the Living Dead, aping the “barricaded in a farmhouse under attack” imagery, but swapping out the standard Romero ghouls for some of the best full-body werewolf costumes ever constructed. It’s those effects that really help elevate Dog Soldiers from run-of-the-mill to unforgettable—they’re arguably the most attractively designed movie werewolves ever, and the film never skimps on showing them off. It’s a classic case of simple premise, outstanding execution.

Other notables for 2002 include Guillermo del Toro’s elevation of the Blade franchise in Blade II, M. Night Shyamalan’s strong first 100 minutes (and bonkers conclusion) in Signs, and the still-underseen psychological horror film May, which perhaps suffers from “unfortunately generic title” syndrome. Along with the laughs to be found in “Bruce Campbell vs. an Egyptian mummy” in Bubba Ho-Tep, it makes for a fun year.

2002 Honorable Mentions: The Ring, Dog Soldiers, Ju-On: The Grudge, Blade II, Bubba Ho-Tep, May, Signs, The Eye, Dark Water, Red Dragon

The Film: 28 Days Later
Director: Danny Boyle

After flourishing throughout the 1980s, the zombie film genre faded into the background for more than a decade, with only a few notable exceptions (Dead Alive, Cemetery Man) that half qualify. But for fans of works by the likes of George Romero, the 1990s were some truly lean times, a trend that would continue on into the 2000s—until 28 Days Later brought a breath of fresh air to the basic structure of zombie cinema.

And yes, we know—the “infected” of 28 Days Later aren’t technically “zombies” or “undead” in the classical Romero sense, but there’s no denying that this film otherwise fits the bill of “zombie apocalypse” movie almost perfectly. The status of the victims as ultimately alive or dead doesn’t matter—what matters is their behavior, and this is where the film innovated most notably, by presenting a form of assailant that was notably more vicious and ferocious than the standard Romero ghoul. Such was the brilliance of the “rage virus.”

This is not to say that the “fast zombie” was a concept that had never existed before this—look no further than Return of the Living Dead, whose indestructible zombies are perfectly capable of sprinting—but in this particular application, it was received as a revelation that helped make zombies frightening once again. These weren’t the dumb, plodding ghouls of Dawn of the Dead, which could be threaded through and pushed over to comic effect with a modicum of carefulness. These rage-infected savages were like sprinting linebackers who would stop at nothing to take you down, completely unhinged lunatics who had somehow unlocked their maximum physical potential. Even burning to death, they’re still sprinting at you. The idea was terrifying, and quickly became an easy way to increase the threat level of your standard zombie, whether they were appearing in films (Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead) or videogames (the Left 4 Dead series). It was such a fundamental shift that you can essentially categorize the zombie films since 28 Days Later as “slow zombie” or “fast zombie” movies.

Of course, the simple revelation of “zombie speed” wouldn’t have meant much without the characters and story to back it up. Danny Boyle’s film is a starkly beautiful and lonesome vision of societal collapse, using the empty London streets of its opening moments (and a beginning essentially stolen by Robert Kirkman for The Walking Dead) to beautiful effect. Cillian Murphy’s Jim wanders through an eerily deserted city, calling to mind multiple Twilight Zone episodes but also the chaos in America that followed the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001—the shots of walls of “missing” posters grimly evoke the same sense of loss and hopeless confusion that permeated U.S. culture at the time, with the attacks still fresh in the nation’s collective memory.

Some 17 years after release, 28 Days Later is a film we return to not so much for its impact on zombie tropes (although this was vast), but for its powerfully nihilistic message, which assumes the worst of human nature and is rarely proven wrong. There are glimmers of hope—the theatrical ending is much rosier than either of the alternates, which are quite bleak—but it’s still one of most bluntly horrific depictions of humanity’s self-inflicted death.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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