28 Days Later

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Alex Garland

With Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns and Christopher Eccleston

Rated R; 112 minutes.

It's the end of the world. Again.

And as is becoming increasingly usual in movies of this type, we humans are the responsible party - though in this case we're only in danger of destroying our species, not the planet itself or the birdies and beasties upon it. As one thoughtful character says in one of the few quiet moments in 28 Days Later, humans are relatively recent inhabitants of the planet, so mankind dying out may be the most normal thing that could happen to the Earth.

This is just one of the interesting philosophical nuggets (some harder to swallow than others) that are part of this uneven horror/sci-fi flick, which delivers plenty of gore and several shocks but too few really scary moments. Those moments that are frightening - and face it, being frightened is a key reason to see a film like this - are scary because of the human natures at work, not because of the visitations of an evil alien or a lab-spawned virus.

There is in fact a lab-spawned virus in 28 Days Later, one that turns its victims into ravening, red-eyed, blood-spewing zombies in less than a minute. If director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland were going for an AIDS or SARS metaphor here, they missed the truly creepy aspects of those illnesses - that people can carry them for long periods of time, infecting others without being aware of what they're passing along.

The virus empties London of all but a few surviving uninfected humans, including Jim (Cillian Murphy) and Selena (Naomie Harris). Surviving the gangs of bloodthirsty ghouls is difficult enough, but the real battle is to maintain one's humanity when every structure that supported civilization - family, friends, religion, government, society - has crumbled, leaving only the shells of buildings, cars and cities. Jim - who has been in a coma during the four weeks of horror described by the film's title - is the humanist, Selena the kill-or-be-killed realist.

Jim and Selena meet up with Frank and his teenage daughter Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) and escape the city in Frank's taxicab, following a ghostly radio message that there's safety - and a possible cure - in the north of England. The escape into the countryside has some of the film's strongest scenes, as Jim and Selena become part of this new family, while each moves towards the other's position about the value of maintaining human feeling. Excellent character actor Gleeson (he was most recently featured in Gangs of New York does a fine job balancing desperation, determination and humor. He makes sure to start the meter when they pile into his taxi to leave London, even though money doesn't mean anything any more.

The film's last third is where things spin out of control. The sanctuary turns out to be a house of horrors, with a mad military man (Christopher Eccleston) determined to re-start the human race by force. Again, parallels with current events (rape as a terror tool, genetic experiments gone horribly awry) are thick on the ground. But unlike a Godzilla movie, where the atomic tests that wake up the big scaly guy are thrown in to give a B-movie monster flick social significance, 28 Days Later has the formula reversed. Its philosophical points are in many ways more interesting than the struggles of the characters to escape the monsters, both human and inhuman.

I don't know if Boyle and Garland meant to take viewers out of the story in this way, but that's the overall effect. The film is shot in digital video, which gives a blurred-edge, dreamy quality to the images. The soundtrack's use of heavenly choirs is attention-grabbing in a distracting way. Like the characters in hundreds of other horror movies, these people make stupid decisions (the better for the audience to scream "Don't go in the house/attic/basement/tunnel, you fool(s)!" But Boyle and Garland spoil the stupidity by having the characters remark on how stupid their course of action is, even as they're taking it.

Boyle's best-known film, Trainspotting, was a horror comedy about addiction that used visual metaphors (like Ewan McGregor's dive into the toilet) to make the junkies' tale a wild visual ride. In 28 Days Later, in a film that's a mixmaster of metaphors, his visual sense is still there, although it's tied to characters who are more often talking points than people we care about.

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