The Oral History Of 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s Genre-Redefining Masterpiece
Inverse speaks to Boyle, writer Alex Garland, and nine others to reveal new details about the making of a modern horror classic.
Few films make the audience sit up and pay attention more immediately than 28 Days Later. The opening of the celebrated horror film sees Cillian Murphy’s character, Jim, wake up from a coma to discover that London is a desolate city: he staggers around alone, the only man in existence, finding that the most densely populated parts of the capital are totally empty but for birds. It’s a stark introduction whose mark on world cinema is still felt 20 years on — all the more so because of the eerie parallels that suddenly came to mind when Covid-19 shut down the very same parts of London.
Imagining a world in which a “rage” virus has infected almost everyone on Earth, 28 Days Later has been fully embraced as a crucial fixture of the zombie genre despite not strictly being about zombies at all. The film’s “zombies” aren’t zombies, but “the infected.” They sprint — athletes tended to play them in the film — and they can be killed in the same way as any human being.
“It's not that interesting to just sit within the genre,” director Danny Boyle tells Inverse. “You’ve got to be trying to do something with it that maybe hasn’t been done before.”
The film’s huge success — it ended up making $84.6 million on a tiny $8 million budget — belies how arduous some of the experience was.
“It was a very very difficult shoot by the end,” producer Andrew Macdonald says. “It had started in early-morning glorious sunshine and ended in darkest English countryside in the rain.”
The production was always operating on barely enough money to get by. Christopher Eccleston, who appears in the later part of the film, agreed to an emergency pay cut. The terrorist attacks of September 11 happened in the middle of filming, putting nerves on edge. And, by the end, the film didn’t have an ending because there was no money left to film one.
Nevertheless, 28 Days Later came out fighting and punched well above its weight. It made stars of Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris and it is now considered to be one of the best British horror films of all time. Two decades on, Inverse spoke to 11 members of the production, including Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Yesterday) and writer Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina, Men), about the making of the iconic film.
Alex Garland (writer): When I was a teenager I watched a bunch of zombie films. I really loved them. And then I basically forgot about zombie films for more than 10 years until the video game Resident Evil came out. What I found out playing Resident Evil was that, in a funny way, the zombies themselves didn’t pose much of a threat because they were so slow-moving. The tension did not come from the zombies, it came from the fact that you didn’t have many bullets to deal with them. I thought: what if the zombies moved as quickly as the dogs?
“28 Days Later as a script is very derivative.”
Danny Boyle (director): We’d done a film of Alex’s book, The Beach. He came up with this very very lean screenplay.
Andrew Macdonald (producer): He came back with the idea for 28 Days: a zombie movie but with a couple of crucial things. I remember reading the script and just feeling scared.
Alex Garland: 28 Days Later, as a script, is very derivative: a twist on Resident Evil and The Day of the Triffids chief among the various influences.
Danny Boyle: I’m not a zombie fan, to be absolutely honest. But Alex was very knowledgeable about them.
Alex Garland: Often, they’re supernatural. They’re reanimated corpses that in effect are reanimated by magic. What Danny brought to that was a very Danny spin, which was a concept. The thing he was really interested in was rage.
Andrew Macdonald: I think the first time he read it, he said, “This is about rage.” And I didn’t necessarily think that but I said, “Yes.”
Danny Boyle: There were extraordinary stories of road rage — social intolerance of each other. Then we found all these photographs of the medical stages of rabies. We replicated that in the look of people.
Andrew Macdonald: My idea was always that we could make it reasonably cheaply. I had access to some funds through the National Lottery. Universal had first look at 28 Days and passed, which is also incredible when you think about the price and obviously the talent.
Assembling A Crew
Danny Boyle: I remember seeing Festen, which Anthony Dod Mantle shot, and loving the camera operating. There wasn’t much lighting, but it made you focus on the choice of how you use the camera and how you move it. So I rang him up in Denmark and said, “Can I come see you?” I think he was a bit shocked.
Anthony Dod Mantle (cinematographer): He just left a message on my answerphone, which I promptly ignored for about a week because I was convinced it was one of my friends teasing me. I was busy pushing my little son around Copenhagen at 2 in the morning in a pram, trying to get him to sleep.
Pat Karam (location manager): I always think Danny’s a bit of a punk rocker, which I’m sure he’d like. He was very attracted to what then was seen as a very unique disruptive force to conventional filmmaking.
Danny Boyle: It's not that interesting to just sit within the genre. You’ve got to be trying to do something with it that hasn’t been done before.
Noah Huntley (Mark): We were hot on the heels of Cool Britannia and there was a feeling that we were doing things differently. Danny was definitely spearheading that. There was a real sense of, this is gonna be groundbreaking and that’s gonna change the destinies of us mere mortals.
Danny Boyle: If you said to a really good actor, “Would you come and do this zombie film?” they’d say, “What? You’ve got to be joking, I’m not doing a zombie film.” These kinds of films benefit from people who are not superstars so that you have that immediate sense that everybody’s dispensable.
Alex Garland: In the script, that whole sequence of [Cillian Murphy] walking out of the hospital, walking up through central London, finding all these notes on Piccadilly Circus, might have been 10 lines in the script. In the film, it expands out to one of the most significant, memorable sequences.
Anthony Dod Mantle: The film starts with shutting down London in those brittle hours between the last clubbers crawling home and you and me going to work.
Danny Boyle: We based it very much on real images that we found in the war-torn world of the last 20 years.
Pat Karam: It was shot before digital technology had really taken over the film industry.
Anthony Dod Mantle: It was consumer cameras. We looked at the tests. I then gave them my opinion about what I thought looked better, and that was the Canon XL H1 or something. It was still at that time an inferior-quality imaging camera but it had this shutter facility that I messed around with in America — the frantic shutter. Danny was fascinated by this kind of brittle, savage, hectic ability that the digital shutter had to capture movement well and not well. You could create this demonic atmosphere.
Pat Karam: Mark Tildesley, the production designer, his department had covered Westminster Bridge in rubbish to resemble the chaos of London after this terrible event. The art department went in really early, covered the bridge in rubbish, and we were getting ready to shoot and the first AD said to me, “Pat, there’s somebody on the bridge.” I could see coming over from the north side there was this Westminster Council rubbish guy with a trolley, going along, sweeping all the rubbish up. I ran onto the bridge, with everyone really tense because the clock’s ticking, and I said, “Look, excuse me, we’re filming, don’t worry, that isn’t rubbish, it will be cleared up.” And he just wouldn’t believe me! I started thinking I was gonna have to throw him off the bridge.
“What do we do about the birds? Well, we just decided that the virus didn’t kill them.”
Robert How (line producer): We had got the Westminster Council to agree for us to lay a bus on its side and smash the windows. We wanted to put it outside Downing Street and they said, “No, you’ve got to put it further up the road.” We got there at 4 in the morning and there wasn’t anybody from the council there so we put it outside Downing Street anyway.
Anthony Dod Mantle: That famous scene with Cillian coming to the car and the alarm going off under Centrepoint… that was between 8 and 9 in the morning and there were commuters howling the most obscene words. We were told off like little schoolboys by the authorities in Whitehall.
Pat Karam: I remember the conversation: “What do we do about the birds?” Well, we just decided that the virus didn’t kill them.
Alex Garland: There was something in the story that was super-aggressive. It was like taking a dog off a leash.
Anthony Dod Mantle: Cillian was young and new to acting then. He was searching, finding his way. Naomie too. Danny had to work hard to get some of the performances.
Luke Mably (Private Clifton): The first thing we did was, they got us to go to a boot camp. We were put as a group of soldiers in this side house, in this one room, quite cramped. I think this was purposefully done by Danny to create a kind of unit but also probably to make us go a bit fucking mad.
Anthony Dod Mantle: It was a very grueling shoot, the third act is the house. It’s like a Western in a way — you get to the house and you know they’re coming. Very, very long days and nights, heavy effects, haze, smoke, lightning strikes. Danny and I had a circus exploring those places. It became a mad theater that could only go wrong.
Luke Mably: I was never supposed to be an infected. So I was sent down to Salisbury town center quite rapidly to go to an optician. Will your eyes be OK to accept these massive red eyes that they put in for the infected, which are like half a table tennis ball?
Andrew Macdonald: It used to drive me nuts because I had to hire the optometrist or whatever they’re called to put in the contact lenses, who then had to be on set all day.
David Bryan (art director): There’s a sequence in the film where they drive a taxi through metal gates. On the night, and this is like 2 o’clock in the morning, the stuntman suddenly says, “I’m not doing that without a crash helmet and a full padded suit.” And everybody goes, “Well, don’t be stupid, we can’t shoot you if you’ve got a crash helmet on.” And then he said, “Oh, and also we can’t have this chain because that chain will just go through the windscreen.” A friend of mine — Johnny Bly, his name is, and he’s a pirate for real — he disappeared and came back about 10 minutes later with this chain. And I said, “Where’d you get that from?” And he said, “I made it.” I said, “Out of what?” He said, “I went to the caterer’s and I got some Haribo sweets.” He’d literally molded chain links out of Haribos and sprayed them with copper spray and then made a little padlock — I dunno what that was made out of, some sort of foam or fudge. I just looked at him and I thought, that’s the most insane fucking thing I’ve seen, but I think it might work.
Danny Boyle: We filmed the beginning of it pre-9/11. We wouldn’t have been able to film it post-9/11 because we had a freedom in London that was just ridiculous when you look back on it now. We were able to tow in and turn over buses outside Downing Street. Now, they’d be around you with machine guns.
Megan Burns (Hannah): We had just finished a night shoot and I woke up to the news. Because we were staying in Canary Wharf at the time, there was obviously panic — with Canary Wharf being the business district.
Robert How: We got to the production office and all the screens were just on the planes flying into the Twin Towers. It was a very surreal experience.
“It made cities, which feel so immense, suddenly, they were utterly vulnerable.”
Pat Karam: People would use it as a bit of an excuse. I do remember coming across an attitude, with the council and the police, where suddenly it was a bit like, “Actually, we’re not sure we can help you with this because of what’s happened in America.”
Danny Boyle: I think the reason [the film] had the impact that it did is that it was the first one out of the block that touched, not directly but aesthetically and morally, some of the residue of what 9/11 had done to us. And, in our particular case, it made cities, which feel so immense, suddenly, they were utterly vulnerable.
Andrew Macdonald: I just had to say one day, “We haven’t got any more money,” and we packed up and left. We didn’t finish the film. It was a very, very difficult shoot by the end. It had started in early-morning glorious sunshine and ended in darkest English countryside in the rain.
Alex Garland: There literally wasn’t an ending. This was after they drive out through the gates. We subsequently shot two endings: one in a hospital and one in another country house, in the Lake District. The hospital ending was the ending I’d written. Jim dies and the two girls set off into the world — who knows what happens to them? It tested really badly. Not just badly but really badly.
David Bryan: So the new ending, they decided, was going to be them in a house somewhere up in the Lake District, having escaped the zombies and putting giant letters on the side of a hill and having a jet fly over it. The issue then became the cost of a CGI jet — £70,000 — and I said, “Well why don’t I get you a jet?” So I made lots of phone calls and I found a Hunter jet in Nice. We had a helicopter filming a helicopter filming a jet. We got the radio message, saying, “Yep, the jet’s just left Liverpool,” and we just stood staring over Coniston Water. Suddenly, this thing appeared in the far horizon flying sideways and it banked round and buzzed over our heads about 200 feet and was flying directly at a cliff, so literally had to come straight forward and then pull straight vertically upwards before it hit the cliff. On the fourth or fifth time, as he came down he was so low that it sucked the water up behind him from the lake. The static off the plane as it flew over was absolutely electric. Then he banked round, came down, he literally almost hit the water, pulled straight up, and as he went up he hit a tree above Danny and this enormous branch came crashing down just behind Danny’s head.
Megan Burns: We shot two versions, which sort of made it open-ended. Did [Jim] survive or not survive?
Andrew Macdonald: I think we were meant to end with them busting out of the house with the gates. I think the ending in the hospital was another ending [Alex] wrote, which we were never going to shoot. Once we showed [the studio] that ending, they then gave us a lot more money to shoot the alternative ending in the Lake District. In America, where it did a huge business and was very successful, they used the original ending — which was the Lake District, the happy ending. And then, when the film was doing well, to present more publicity, they offered both endings.
The World Watches
Danny Boyle: We did this test screening — this was just an early one with about 20 or 30 people — and it was a disaster. They just walked out. They kept going to the toilet. They kept talking. I remember thinking, “Fucking hell, it doesn’t work.”
Andrew Macdonald: You can’t really tell until you have 300 people in.
Danny Boyle: I was walking through Soho and Mark Kermode — I don’t know if it was him but one of the guys who was doing the critic stuff — was in this Pizza Hut or Pizza Land, and he came running over the road and he said, “I’ve just seen your film. Fucking great.”
Robert How: We were all blown away. You did think to yourself, would people swallow this? Would they understand it?
Andrew Macdonald: When the film actually got released, I remember, classic British media, most of them in the reviews were pretty awful. Because it was a genre movie, they dismissed it. It got really good reviews in America. Stephen King loved it. He bought 800 tickets on the opening night or something. And it made almost $50 million in America.
Megan Burns: I was quite heavily criticized for my performance in it and I started to feel a little bit embarrassed and I started to feel guilty, like I’d let the film down. Even into early adulthood, I’d always refrain from telling people that I was in it. I wish that I hadn’t let those negative things get in the way of me enjoying something incredible. It’s changed the genre. There were people who’d somehow found my personal email address and they’d send emails and refer to me as the “cancer” on the film industry. People can be really cruel and not realize that a 16-year-old is just figuring themselves out.
28 Years Later?
Alex Garland: I resisted it for a long time because there were things about 28 Weeks that bugged me. I just thought, “Fuck that. I’d rather try to write a different story in a different world.”
Andrew Macdonald: I’d like there to be a sequel a lot.
Alex Garland: But a few years ago an idea materialized in my head for what would be really 28 Years Later. Danny always liked the idea.
Danny Boyle: So we’re talking about it quite seriously, quite diligently. If he doesn’t want to direct it himself I’ll be well up for it, if we can execute a similarly good idea.