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 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 US 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 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 US$33.4 million in the US since it opened. In a summer of disappointing blockbusters, most of which have seen steep box-office declines after big opening weekends, 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 US, 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."
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."