**MAJOR spoilers, horror film gore, and discussion of rape behind the jump**
28 Days Later is usually classified as a zombie film despite having only minor commonalities with the traditional movie zombies. The movie shows the destruction of most of the UK population after a rescue attempt on an animal research facility releases chimpanzees that are infected with Rage: a blood and saliva-bourne virus that almost immediately transforms everyone infected into uncontrollable killing machines. Due to the ease of transmission and the aggression of the infected, the virus swept through the population, and there were reports of infection in New York and Paris just before television and radio contact with the rest of the world stopped. 28 days after the initial incident, Jim (who has been in a coma after a head injury) wakes up to find the hospital and all of London completely deserted with no idea what has happened.
I think that Jim was meant to be the viewers’ way into the story- waking up in a world where he doesn’t know the new rules, just as we don’t know quite what they are yet either- but I’m not sure how universal that ends up being. You have to expect a certain amount of genre savvy from the audience these days, and I know that I spent his first minutes on screen complaining about the rookie mistakes he was making. (If the entire city of London appears deserted, does it make sense to stop and pick up all of the money laying around? If you go into a church which quickly appears to full of dead bodies, wouldn’t most people run the moment a few of them started moving?) Luckily just as I was starting to become impatient, Selena showed up.
Selena is a very rare character in this kind of film- in her very first appearance she saves Jim’s life, yells at him for being foolish, and gives him a crash course in the rules for surviving in a world that has broken down completely. Bravery, direct action, and thorough competence from her first seconds on screen. Not only is she a strong female character, she’s a strong female character of color which is even more rare.
At the beginning she’s with a man named Mark, who winds up becoming infected after the three of them have arrived at Jim’s parents’ house to verify that they’re dead, and she does what has to be done and kills him. There is a matter of seconds before the virus takes over and changes someone- hesitation is your own death sentence. At this early juncture Selena and Jim have both been firmly painted with the characteristics usually reserved for the opposite gender- it’s Jim’s sentimentality (understandable though it is) that puts them in this particular piece of danger, and Selena is the one who steps in with immediate action to save them both. She is the one with the experience and the strength to keep them alive, Jim’s the naive and compassionate one.
Selena and Jim soon meet up with Frank and his teenaged daughter Hannah. Hannah and Frank have been barricaded inside of their apartment building, Frank choosing to stay there for fear that he should get killed leaving Hannah alone and exposed. If they’re traveling with other people there’s a back up plan in case something should happen to him. Jim wants to take Frank and Hannah with them, Selena points out that Frank and Hannah will slow them down and “they need us more than we need them”. It’s Hannah who reveals that she overheard that conversation and that Jim and Selena need them just as much as the other way around- there’s strength in numbers and they have transportation and they’ve picked up a broadcast from a group of soldiers saying they have the answer to infection.
Just as they reach the house in Manchester where the soldiers have barricaded themselves in, Frank is exposed to the virus. Selena is busy holding Hannah back from going to her father but Jim can’t quite work up the nerve to kill someone he’s gotten to know. Frank winds up being shot by the soldiers, and the three survivors are initially welcomed as part of the group. However it’s soon revealed that their ‘answer to infection’ is to simply remain there until the infected die of starvation. The radio broadcast was also transmitted with an ulterior motive in mind- to draw other uninfected survivors, specifically women. It’s a horrifying prospect for a story to set up rape as an extremely likely conclusion but it’s a legitimate question for one set in a post-apocalyptic world; when 99.9% of the population is gone women do become valuable for biological reasons.
After a couple of the soldiers attempt to assault Selena and Jim and one of the soldiers who can’t stand this idea step in to help her, the Major tells Jim how this is going to end (again his naivety shows up, she wasn’t all that shocked) and that trying to interfere will get him killed. Naturally the three of them try to run, but they’re outnumbered and overpowered, and Jim and the soldier are taken to outside to be executed while Selena and Hannah are taken upstairs to change clothes. It’s not treated as an acceptable outcome, but as something that’s happening because these men are scared and nearly out of control; there’s an awful lot of distancing going on between the women they’ve talked to and eaten with and the women they are about to assault- not referring to either of them by name and making them change out of their practical clothes and into formal dresses. (How ironic that they both wind up in red gowns, the colour of the blood-bourne virus that is so dangerous, when by the end of the film they’ll be the only two who haven’t descended to that level of violence and destruction.) There is very little that either of them can do at this point, but Selena is still scrambling for a way to survive, buying enough time alone to pass Hannah sedatives to try to minimize the trauma in the only way she can, looking for a way out.
While this is going on, outside the mansion the soldier is murdered but Jim gets away. He eventually makes it over the wall, and the two soldiers figure he’ll get killed by an infected and go back inside. Jim manages to take out several of the soldiers himself and releases one of the infected into the mansion to keep the rest busy, then finds Selena being held by one of the soldiers, whom he kills in a particularly brutal manner. The second Selena was free she grabbed her machete and was ready to kill Jim if he proved to be infected, even if she is quite fond of him by this point. Relieved to find out he’s not infected, she kisses him… only to have Hannah (who wandered off after the sedatives kicked in) run in and bash him on the head thinking Selena’s being attacked. Yay for characters who don’t display blanket trust simply because someone used to be on their side. As the three of them run from the house, they find the Major waiting in their car. All of his men are gone, and he shoots Jim in the stomach. It’s Hannah who jumps into the car and throws it into reverse, breaking the back glass and allowing one of the infected to pull him out of the car so that she, Jim, and Selena can get away.
Everyone working together gets them out, and no one person is just a hero or a victim, and that message is consistent throughout the entire film. I think that’s what makes 28 Days Later a drama-with-a-horror-backdrop rather than a straight up horror film; horror movies aren’t usually very hopeful, but I can’t think of much more to hope for in terms of female characters displaying strength and intelligence than the ones shown here.