Ghost town lock down
When Danny Boyle directed 28 Days Later in 2002, following up on The Beach – his previous adaptation of an Alex Garland novel – he produced a low-budget gem whose grainy visuals and shaking camera shots helped reinvigorate a zombie genre that had lost its way since George Romero’s Living Dead movies of the 1970s.
Shot almost entirely in sequence, on a budget of just under £5 million, the film’s mock-up version of a viral pandemic struck a powerful visual note that is only more impressive considering the production’s finances. More memorable than the zombies that ran at you or the raw feel to the film’s gory moments are the (now) hauntingly resonant scenes of an abandoned London, bearing all the hallmarks of an ugly descent into chaos and anarchy.
Those images tapped into a tradition that extends back to Gothic Victorian literature, notably Shelley and Stoker, who set their tales of murder and monsters in settings familiar to their readers, establishing Britain as the home of Gothic horror in the process. HG Wells followed suit with War of The Worlds (originally set in leafy Horsell Common) and later John Wyndham, the acclaimed science fiction novelist whose opening chapter of The Day of the Triffids, set in an deserted post-apocalyptic London overrun by man-eating plants, inspired Garland to write 28 Days Later.
Almost twenty years after its release, the viral pandemic foreshadowed by the film is upon us, and despite no zombies – and comparatively – no real reason to panic, times like these bring those ghostly scenes of central London back into one’s thoughts.
Securing shots of an empty Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Bridge and the M1 motorway was no mean feat, and required extensive co-operation between the film’s production supervisor Andrew Macdonald, local councils and the police. “We were able to shoot for an hour or so before the city got too busy for us to hold back the traffic.” said Macdonald of the London shots, filmed between four and five in the morning, before rush hour began in earnest. “It was very exciting, and when you see the whole of Westminster Bridge and the embankment all closed for you, and the traffic stopped, and you can’t hear anything, it was thrilling but strange as well. “
“We wanted to see Britain as a mythic landscape.”
The film’s motorway scene required even greater logistics, with production receiving permission to shoot on the M1 on a Sunday morning between seven and nine. With police providing a rolling roadblock to slow motorists in both directions, the crew captured the 60-second scene using ten cameras.
Speaking on the film’s setting, director Danny Boyle added, “We wanted to see Britain as a mythic landscape. Unfortunately it’s a relatively small place and we tend to be over familiar with it through background shots from even a few days of television. We felt it was important to try and make it unfamiliar, so audiences could look at it in a slightly different way, a bigger way, than they do in their normal lives.”
During this time of unprecedented unfamiliarity, Boyle’s ambition to show us a bigger picture, force us to see our surroundings as we never have and transform the over-familiar into an eye-opening spectacle, is closer to reality now than it ever has been.