(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: relies on stakes and staging to draw out tension in its most intense scene.)
The early aughts marked a substantial shift in the zombie subgenre. The back-to-back releases of Danny Boyle’s and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake introduced faster, meaner swarms of zombies that couldn’t be outmaneuvered quite as easily as their predecessors. While the former technically classifies as an outbreak feature rather than a zombie movie, 28 Days Later bears all the hallmarks of a post-apocalypse zombie movie made famous by George A. Romero. No matter where you fall on the zombie debate, nearly all agree that Boyle changed the genre landscape with a kinetic horror film that brought poignancy and terror in equal measure.
No scene exemplifies the nail-biting intensity of 28 Days Later quite like the stress-inducing flat tire that pushes the limits of a narrow escape. Boyle maximizes the suspense through expert staging, heightened emotions and sound, and already established stakes to deliver one of the most unforgettable moments in modern horror.
A group of animal activists breaks into a lab in Cambridge, unwittingly setting free chimpanzees infected with an incurable “Rage Virus” that rapidly spreads across the country. Those infected lose their humanity and become lethally aggressive, and the epidemic causes societal collapse within a matter of weeks. Twenty-eight days after the initial outbreak, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma and finds himself alone in a deserted hospital. In the Alex Garland penned and Boyle-directed feature, allegory and drama get wrapped up in Jim’s perilous struggle to adapt to a new, post-apocalyptic world.
The Story So Far
After wandering the desolate streets of a once bustling city, Jim encounters the infected but gets saved by survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). They fill Jim in on the state of the country and accompany him to his parents’ house. He discovers they commit suicide, and infected neighbors bite Mark in an attack that night. Selena kills Mark before he turns, and the remaining pair depart for a safer place to stay. They spot Christmas lights twinkling on the balcony of an apartment building and make a harrowing trek up numerous flights of stairs with infected in tow. They find the apartment inhabited by friendly taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter is Hannah (Megan Burns). The new foursome bond and a radio signal promising sanctuary motivate the group to embark on a road trip.
Frank must drive the taxi through a dark tunnel filled with abandoned vehicles and dead bodies. Navigating around the macabre obstacles eventually results in a flat tire, forcing a tire change in the worst possible setting. While Frank and Hannah get to work, a nervous Jim keeps vigil. He hears a sound that pauses the maintenance; it quickly crescendos as a horde of screeching rats rush past them. They barely have enough time to pull Hannah out from under the car when Selena spies the first shadow of an infected barreling in their direction. They multiply in numbers and their screams match those by a panicked Jim and Selena. The crowd closes in just as Hannah finishes swapping out tires.
Before this intense scene arrives, Boyle established stakes through more minor scaled attacks by the infected and the shocking demise of Mark. It set a precedence that survival isn’t guaranteed for even the most heroic and fit characters. Speed is of the essence against the fast-moving and seemingly tireless aggressors. The introduction to middle-aged Frank and his young teen daughter contradicts everything Jim has been taught about what it takes to survive. They begin their part in the narrative with lower survival odds and the expectation of added weight for Jim and Selena.
The dark, enclosed tunnel instills trepidation before even factoring in the outbreak. Only one way in and out creates claustrophobic dread, but then it’s magnified to a horrific degree with a makeshift graveyard of those that were unable to escape civilization’s ruin. Boyle exploits the natural unease the setting creates with frenetic camera movement and quick edits, cycling through wide shots of the group fumbling in the dark to close-ups of each character as they set about their tasks. The camera’s rapid pans as it follows Jim’s pacing makes his anxiety palpable.
Then comes the sound, a soft rushing roar that builds to shrieking terror. The wave of rats heralds a rush of panic, but they serve as a foreboding harbinger of doom. The noise hushes to a lull long enough for the actual threat to emerge. A single silhouette in the distance gives way to dozens—their angry wails signal proximity. As the gap between the enemy and the protagonists shorten, pulse-pounding horror reaches a fever pitch. The tension gets drawn out to an uncomfortable degree.
Boyle toys with erratic pacing to maintain unpredictability. Jim’s journey toggles back and forth between moments of extreme stress and lulls of peaceful calm before the next wave. The lo-fi quality and Boyle’s dynamic direction give 28 Days Later a gritty, present feel for this unique dystopia, but it also heightens the fear. The rapid, turbulent camera movements within the tire changing scene exacerbate the unease shaped by its eerie setting. The aural build ties it all together, matching the emotions of both characters and viewers.
Jim, Selena, Frank, and Hannah barely make it out of the tunnel alive by the skin of their teeth. A reprieve awaits at the other end, this time. Death comes swiftly and frequently in 28 Days Later, as do the bursts of stark horror. Yet none of it comes close to shredded your nerves quite like this close call in a dark tunnel.
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