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Even Later, '28 Days' Hedges Its Ending
By A. O. SCOTT
On Friday, its 29th day in American theaters, the British horror film "28 Days Later" will be given a new ending. Moviegoers who endure the film's stark and terrifying depiction of an England all but wiped out by a rampaging virus will be able to choose just how unsparing they want this apocalyptic vision of the future to be.
The current ending — fairly upbeat given what has come before — will still be there. It will now be followed, however, by a four-minute sequence, beginning with the on-screen words "But what if," during which a darker, more desperate conclusion unfolds.
Alternative endings — like deleted scenes, "making of" featurettes and directors' commentary — have become a staple of the DVD market. But adding such extras while a film is still in theaters is virtually unprecedented. The decision of Fox Searchlight, the movie's producer and United States distributor, to add the extra scenes to the theatrical version reflects the impact of technologies like DVD and the Internet on the culture of moviegoing.
"28 Days Later" was first released last October in Britain — where the director, Danny Boyle, has a large and devoted following — by Fox International in the same version that American audiences have been seeing. In May the British DVD was released, with multiple endings (including storyboard animation of one never shot). News of these, and fans' responses to them, circulated quickly through the borderless Web-based world of hard-core horror fans, which Fox Searchlight was already cultivating by spending heavily on Internet advertising.
For Mr. Boyle and Fox Searchlight a happy conclusion is already assured. Shot in England on digital video without major stars, "28 Days Later" has taken in an estimated $33.4 million in the United States since it opened in this country on June 27.
In a summer of disappointing blockbusters, most of which have seen steep box-office declines after big opening weekends, Mr. Boyle's film is part of an insurgency of smaller, more challenging movies that have succeeded through audience excitement and word of mouth. From a business perspective the new ending offers a chance to keep that momentum going.
"The reality of the movie marketplace is that it's moving faster and faster," Steve Gilula, Searchlight's president for distribution, said in a telephone interview. "This gives us a chance to give the film another boost. Even though we've done well, there are people who would be interested if we have a reason to remind them." Not to mention fans of the movie who will now have a reason to see it a second time.
Blockbusters become blockbusters by marketing to voracious teenagers who go to the film again and again. Fox wants to prompt a similar desire among more sophisticated viewers attuned to the Internet.
After "28 Days Later" opened in the United States, these same fans, as well as a number of critics, began to grumble about the happier conclusion, in which an airplane appears to deliver the three main characters from their plague-ridden homeland. "My imagination is just diabolical enough," Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, "that when that jet fighter appears toward the end, I wish it had appeared, circled back, and opened fire."[Go, Roger!]
A Web site, esplatter.com, stated the objection more bluntly: "If only `28 Days Later' didn't wimp out in its final shots with a syrupy ending, the film may have gone down as a true masterpiece of zombie horror."
Such sentiments fly in the face of Hollywood conventional wisdom, which holds that audiences will avoid downbeat endings like, well, the plague. But this view does reflect the passionate, sometimes dogmatic opinions of horror aficionados.
"The debate is legitimate," Mr. Gilula said. "I think there are people who like pessimism and despair, but there are a lot of people who like hope."[gag me]
If you haven't seen the movie, you might want to stop reading here. But it should be noted that the newly added ending, while tragic, allows for at least a hint of optimism, like the sliver of light between hospital doors in the final shot.
Mr. Gilula mentioned an earlier scene in which an airplane suggests that the virus, rather than spreading to the rest of the world, has been contained in Britain. "Imagine that not being in the film and having the alternative ending," he said, suggesting that otherwise one might think the human race was finished.
If anything, watching the film in its new, forked version confirms its essential and surprising humanism. "28 Days Later" is about flesh-devouring, disease-ravaged zombies, and about a band of fascistic soldiers whose version of security is as corrupting of morals as the virus is of the human body. But the movie is also about the way the imperative of survival knits people together.
The lovely, leisurely middle of the film shows bonds of solidarity forming among four strangers. Later only three are left — Jim, Hannah and Serena [sic] — and the endings diverge once the characters escape from the soldiers.
In one version Jim is nursed back to health; he and the others await their rescue in an idyllic seaside cottage, as if the deus ex machina airplane is their reward for loyalty and bravery. In the other, Jim dies, but Serena's tears bring out the film's central theme more forcefully than that airplane. The story's arc passes from Jim — who has changed from a dazed, passive victim into a vengeful action hero — to Serena, and we realize that her furious, every-man-for-himself toughness has given way to another kind of heroism. [gag me again]