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If Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later has a point beyond paying homage to the films of George Romero, I’m at a loss as to what it is. It’s easy to cite the movie as Boyle’s most electrifyingÂ work since 1996’s Trainspotting — just bear in mind Boyle hasn’t been on much of an upswing since that cinematic stunner. Shot on digital video from a screenplay by Alex Garland (author of The Beach, adapted into a bloated, boring movie experience by Boyle), the movie never gels into the genuinely terrifying experience it could have been. It’s a virtually fright-free ride.
The truly unnerving moments arrive in the first half hour, as a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy, handsome yet stiff) awakens in a hospital bed to an empty, lifeless London. Evidence of chaos lies in the clutter piled on the streets, but there are no bodies to be found, just an empty wasteland. In the film’s most alarming sequence, Jim stumbles upon a church filled with a mountain of bodies, and reflexively shouts “Hello. ” The shocking image that follows sears your brain like a woodburn.
Jim is rescued from certain death by Selena (Naomi Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who explain to him that a virus called RAGE has spread through the U.K. Transmitted by saliva and blood, the effects are pretty much instantaneous. “You’ve got ten, twenty seconds ” to kill a recently infected person before they kill you, explains the cool, distant Selena, who later warms up to Jim when she realizes he may be the last fuckable man on Earth. (Lucky for her, he’s not gay.) The infected lie dormant until something alive comes within their purview. Then they leap to savage life, a frenetic flail of limbs. Gratefully, for the survivors, in this movie the dead remain dead.
The survivors eventually find refuge with a man and his young daughter (Brendan Gleeson, heartfelt and poignant, and Megan Burns, deliciously dry), and the group head for Manchester, where a military outpost, broadcasting over radio airwaves a month dormant, holds a promise of refuge. It’s in this third-act setting that 28 Days Later takes a sharp, nasty turn into Anarchy-ville. The soldiers have a surprise for their guests — and it ain’t a pleasant one.
Anyone familiar with George Romero’s spectacular Dead trilogy — Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead — will recognize elements from each in 28 Days Later Thematically, however, the movie adheres more closely to Romero’s 1973 cheapie The Crazies, in which a biological mishap turns the residents of a small Pennsylvania town into murderous psychotics.
Those aching to scratch beneath the surface will find a movie that could be viewed as a warning against the dangers of biological warfare, of experimenting with microbes best left untouched. But this is nothing new — films from the wonderfully satiric Return of the Living Dead to the leaden and dated The Omega Man have dealt with similar themes more effectively. All Boyle has going for him is a sense of visual acuity, which is in top form here.
As the movie progresses forward, any steam of originality dissipates into a conventional horror climax set in an abandoned English mansion, complete with sheets of rain, ridiculously persistent lightning, and a lot of bloodshot-eyed infected folk lunging for the shrieking defenseless. Call it: Hammer-time.