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28 Days Later   A-

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2002 (USA: 2003)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston.

Review by Rob Vaux

Zombie pictures never get any respect. Ask a nonbeliever about them and they roll their eyes in disgust. Geek shows, they say, empty splatterfests with nothing on their mind but carny-style gore. But films like Dawn of the Dead and the new 28 Days Later achieve so much more than that, marrying truly gruesome spectacle with superb social wit. The genre typically involves cataclysmic circumstances -- the walking dead overrunning civilization while a few battered survivors try to fight their way to safety -- which ironically provides a unique fulcrum for studying characters under pressure. They balance horror's lowest common denominator against its highest, and when it's done right (as it is in 28 Days Later) the results are sublime.

Plus there's the sheer visceral thrill of watching the world end... which isn't that bad a deal if you're don't mind hordes of cannibalistic undead. The infected chimps get out, the plague runs rampant, and by the time it shakes itself loose, all the horse manure we've been putting up with has melted away. No more congressional subcommittees! No more Joe Millionaire! That asshole who cut you off in the parking lot? Dead! It's a wonderful guilty pleasure -- dancing on the world's grave -- and 28 Days Later understands the secret joy of it.

It also gives director Danny Boyle a chance to make up for his dreadful efforts since Trainspotting. His approach relies on guerilla techniques: a digital camera, shotgun editing, and minimal frills, which fit perfectly with the genre. The protagonists are appealing too, starting with bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) who goes into a coma after being struck by a car. Four weeks later, he wakes up in an abandoned hospital -- still hooked up to an IV -- amid a London transformed into a ghost town. Snippets of newspapers suggest some kind of cataclysm, but the details are vague: a disease, an attempted evacuation, hordes of missing and dead. Soon enough, the plague's "victims" appear, transformed into mindless killing machines by highly infectious blood. England has been engulfed by them, and they've apparently spread to the rest of the world as well. He's saved by a pair of survivors (Naomie Harris and Noah Huntley), who have adopted Darwinian tactics to stay alive amid the horror.

Boyle applies a surprising imagination to his material. Given the dark times we live in, the subject matter feels quite at home, and while the expected scares are all there (aided by editor Chris Gill and some nicely disturbing makeup), 28 Days Later brings fresh details to the mix. The sight of zombies who are much speedier than we thought and an infection that transforms victims in a matter of seconds brings jolts that even the most hardened horror fan would be hard-pressed to resist. The English setting is a new twist as well, allowing Boyle to ruminate on his native country's diminished state in the world ("Who would notice one little island?" a survivor moans). Occasionally, the rapid-fire technique gets ahead of itself, but even then, it offers us something in compensation. It all comes to a head in (where else?) a country manor on a dark and stormy night, and Boyle's tip of the hat to the eldest of horror clichés works brilliantly when mixed with the apocalyptic splatter.

28 Days Later is redolent with such playfulness... and yet its cleverness never overwhelms the visceral thrills. Like the best of its predecessors, it works on multiple levels, smart commentary walking hand in hand with funhouse scares. For all the blood and guts on the screen, it isn't really about the walking dead at all, but rather the people trying to outlast them. Boyle transcends the geek show because he treats his characters with compassion and thoughtfulness, even when he puts them through the wringer. Jim is a kind-hearted soul, and while his companions have hard edges, we can understand the terror that brought them to that state. They're eventually joined by a quiet cabbie (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter (Megan Burns), who retain their affection for each other despite the grim circumstances. Even the inevitable band of soldiers -- ignorant, gung-ho louts who don't realize how out of their league they are -- have sympathetic motivations. We care about these people, we want them to stay alive, and we root for them even when they're selfish or stupid or scared. They're us and we're them, whether we want to be or not. 28 Days Later revels in the beautiful folly of that equation while raising the zombie movie to the realm of near-art.

Review published 06.26.2003.

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