The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Absorbing the digital-video aesthetic of 28 Days Later upon its stateside debut in 2003 felt like being a passenger aboard a plane — one perpetually and violently plummeting from comfortable creature-feature altitudes into unexplored valleys of visual grime. 

Although hardly the first digital curio to make the mainstream, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland’s zombie parable nevertheless offered a prototype for how the format forced viewers to reckon with their traditional response to horror. (It also kicked off a revival of zombie fiction — largely a four-letter word today given AMC’s desperate wheel-spinning on The Walking Dead, Netflix’s tepid take on tropes with Army of the Dead and the incessant insistence that anything is left in the tank as far as the Resident Evil films go.)

Of course, budget and time mostly dictated Boyle’s decision to go digital; given only 45 minutes after dawn to shoot in locations like Westminster Bridge and Piccadilly Circus, there was otherwise no practical way to depict the desolation of a London decimated by plague. But Boyle said smaller, easily maneuvered setups allowed the crew to contemplate filming as if they were survivors alongside cast members like Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson.

Whether a camcorder-Caravaggio scene of corpses strewn about a church or a Georgia O’Keeffe-like smearing of watercolor flowers across a motorway, 28 Days Later both emphasizes the nascent format’s pixel limitations and enhances its recognition as a real-world tool. Sure, Garland’s conceit of a “rage virus” unexpectedly let loose on a human populace is the stuff of conventional horror. But blurred by artifacted zeroes and ones and blown out by sudden light changes, this end of the world was no longer so easily discernible from videos of backyard birthday parties — a comforting distance digitally obliterated in a fast, blotchy frenzy.

28 Days Later is all squawk-and-klaxon from the get-go, with a prologue playing off that of 2001: A Space Odyssey and offering a new landscape of unrest and unease for primates to discover. Subjected to real-world footage of riots and violence, chimpanzees have become hosts for a rage virus — which leaps into the human population after animal activists raid a London research lab. Rather than render someone a brain-hungry monster, the rage virus simply amplifies our atavistic, animalistic response. Although Boyle and Stanley Kubrick both saw the inevitability in such outcomes, Kubrick saw the silver lining of a prehistoric liberation — and perhaps a necessary evil through which man could unlock the secrets of the heavens. In Boyle’s hands, it represents a contemporary exhaustion of overstimulation — lingering on one ancient chimp calming for several seconds and then again pounding its enclosure to escape, trapped in a cycle of complacency and panic.

The title comes from the point at which our bicycle-courier protagonist, Jim (Murphy), awakens from a coma in a hospital — naked, tethered by tubes long ago left unattended and utterly alone. Donning a pair of scrubs, Jim ventures out into a once brisk, bustling London that is now  a husk of its former self. Jim doesn’t yet know what has transpired, but the gravity of the situation is tethered to titanic, tumultuous drums in John Murphy’s score. (In the years to come, John Murphy’s “In the House, in a Heartbeat” served as shorthand for tension on many a soundtrack.)

After narrowly surviving a close call in the aforementioned church, Jim joins up with Selena (Harris), a cab driver named Frank (Gleeson) and Frank’s daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). Together, their exploits range from Jim getting closure on his parents’ whereabouts to faux-cheerful Christmas celebrations and, finally, seeking the source of a Manchester military broadcast that promises the “answer to infection” but turns out to be far from paradise.

Complemented by Chris Gill’s insidious editorial tactics, 28 Days Later remains a rattling incursion of sound and vision in which oblivion festers, lingers and lurks at the edge of every frame. Even the framing black bars of a widescreen moment in which Jim daydreams a happier fate for his parents are dotted by jagged, ragged remnants. At times it almost feels like Apocalypse Now, a sort of hallucinatory, bombed-out hell playing host to a most uncertain journey.

28 Days Later also persuasively reimagines the hungry horde as a more swiftly unstoppable force, launching themselves at their prey instead of simply lurching toward them. Garland and Boyle also have nasty, horror fun with particulars of the infection — which can take hold in 20 seconds and can be contracted through infected blood in the eye, nose and mouth. Given the profuse projectile vomiting on display, the transmission rate is vigorous and visceral.

It’s a strong balance of shock-tactic scares and quiet introspection that perhaps plays a bit less relentlessly than you may remember. One decision made by Frank — superbly played by Gleeson as both well-kitted foot soldier and doofus dolting dad — is monumentally dumb in a way that serves only to move the plot along. Harris is generally left high and dry by a script that pushes Selena into more of a reflection of Jim’s experience (or writer proxy) rather than a character of her own. And like Apocalypse Now before it, 28 Days Later also concludes at a military encampment where lunacy has taken hold — only this one loses steam in a ho-hum, run-through-the-spook-house climax complete with a raging storm outside. Garland and Boyle can dress their conclusive thesis up in as much concussive bombast as they want, but it’s pat and disappointing in a way the rest of the film is not (and further complicated by an inability to commit, given a later “what if …” alternate ending tacked on to milk more money).

Still, the lo-fi lure endures here with a patient and potent human punch and, moreover, a chilling swath cut through notions of global safety. Although filmed before 9/11, 28 Days Later hit theaters at the moment where harmony after that tragedy had curdled into a horror at all it precipitated (and would in years to come). Also, in the wake of a pandemic that pushed everyone from public spaces, its iconographic images of isolation here have come to serve as both a cultural mnemonic and coping mechanism. Like any good end-times parable, 28 Days Later understands the paradox of how quickly the world can change and how little it can change — its crucial wrinkle being a visual embrace of how disruption and tradition are often simply a stone’s throw apart.