With his first two films - Shallow Grave and Trainspotting - director Danny Boyle established himself as a promising new talent with a genuine creativity behind the camera. That image was tarnished, however, with his follow-ups: the too-eccentric-for-its-own-good A Life Less Ordinary and the abysmal The Beach. The latter two pictures were Hollywood affairs that found Boyle working for a major studio (20th Century Fox) and with big stars (Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio). Perhaps the outright failure of those films inspired Boyle to return to his more independent roots. Or perhaps he just knew a really good script when he saw one. Either way, the director makes a major return to form with 28 Days Later a film that is stylish and spooky, cerebral and horrific.
A pre-credit sequence features three animal rights activists breaking into a lab to free some monkeys. The scientist warns them that this would be catastrophic, as the monkeys have been infected with a virus that is being studied. This virus is unnamed, but is passingly referred to as “the Rage.” The zealous activists don’t heed the warning and open the cages. The monkeys go berserk, attacking everyone with a blood thirst that is insatiable.
Four weeks later, a young man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma in a London hospital. The building is deserted. He goes outside. The normally bustling city is empty. Some trash is strewn around, but there are no signs of life anywhere. There is no electricity, no public transportation, no news. Eventually, Jim stumbles on a church. There are people inside, but they aren’t right. They are vicious predators who spew blood and try to bite him. Their eyes are bright red, almost zombie-like. Jim is rescued by Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris) – two of the only other survivors around. They inform him that a virus was unleashed a month prior; it spread so quickly that there are very few of the “uninfected” left in England. Those who are infected wander the streets looking to spread the virus through blood contact. This often entails biting.
Mark and Selena agree to help Jim look for his family, although they are pretty certain they won’t be found alive. While hiding from the infected, they meet Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his young daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). They, too, have somehow survived. On Frank’s radio, everyone hears a message from the military urging survivors to come to a certain location where there is safety and protection from the infected. The group makes the trip (well, most of them do…I’m leaving out a few things) and ends up in a fortified castle protected by nine soldiers. The leader is Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), who is intent on rebuilding society at any cost. How he plans to do this has some disturbing implications for all involved.
28 Days Later is being sold as a zombie movie, and to a degree it is. Cleverly, though, the infected are not like those lumbering zombies in Night of the Living Dead. They don’t stumble around slowly; they run, flail their arms, and attack gruesomely. With red eyes and blood often pouring from their mouths, they are truly a horrific sight.
I think it would be misleading to only classify the film as a zombie movie, though. Really, this is a story that examines the issue of survival. There are some hefty questions hiding below the surface: What do we do if a virus ever wipes out so many people? Is it right to just kill the infected – even if they are children – in order to protect yourself? Is it better to surrender to the virus or fight what will probably be a losing battle? How do you rebuild society when almost everything it’s based on has been wiped away? That last question is of particular interest to Major West. This is a really fascinating character. His plan is disturbing, to be sure, but how unrealistic is it? Yes, the way he wants to execute it suggests he is a madman. At the same time, what he proposes is perhaps the only thing that really could save mankind. I like the way the movie asks these tough questions.
28 Days Later is filled with those questions, which only serves to make the zombie stuff scarier; there’s weight to this story. The cinematography also helps. Boyle shot the movie in digital video, then transferred it to film. The result has a weird, otherworldly feel to it. The colors are saturated, creating a visual atmosphere that heavily implies dread. Somehow, the movie looks real and unreal at the same time. It’s hard to put into words, but the effect is striking.
The screenplay was written by novelist Alex Garland (who wrote the book The Beach was based on). Clearly, he and Boyle want to make an intelligent horror movie rather than a standard slice-and-dice picture. 28 Days Later is creepy because they ask all the right questions and pose all the right dilemmas. This is an effective examination of what survival really entails – and it knows that the answers aren’t necessarily pleasant.
( out of four)
28 Days Later is rated R for strong violence and gore, language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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