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28 Days Later

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say it will end in ice. But I'm holding out for it ending with an infected monkey bite.

Apparently so are screenwriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle. For it is just such a calamity that tips the dominos of disaster in 28 Days Later, their intriguing riff on the zombie genre with artier concerns on its mind.

We're not talking Sumatran Rat-Monkeys, either, of the variety that started all the trouble in Dead Alive (aka Braindead, for our non-U.S. readers). No, it all starts with your standard laboratory chimpanzee.

A group of animal rights activists break in to a compound playing around with various viruses and their effects on primates. Sure, these young tree-huggers are well-meaning, but their may be some sly commentary in their willingness to kill in order to liberate their hairier brethren. They're also not willing to listen to the pleas of the young lab assistant begging them not to release these monkeys. Why not liberate them? Because they've literally been infected with Rage, a virus that causes homicidal impulses that supersede all other instincts. (Although it may be more fair to say that the virus eliminates all impulses but the homicidal one - Garland and Boyle clearly have a point to make about the basic savagery of man.)

Within seconds of opening a cage, a chimp attacks, and a human has been infected. This Rage is so contagious that the slightest blood to blood contact triggers it to full sickness within a minute. And then, 28 days later…

Bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma. His hospital room has been completely abandoned, leaving him au naturel in a ghost city. From chimpanzee to man, it's all still clearly just the naked ape.

After finding some scrubs and busting open a Pepsi machine for supplies, Jim wanders the eerily silent city of London. Littered with corpses and trash (the streets, not Jim himself), he can find no clues as to what happened, until he blunders into a church. Naturally, he yells "helloooo…" And we all know what a mistake that is in a horror film. Sure enough, amidst a pile of bodies in the chapel, something stirs.

Unlike most visions of the undead, Boyle's zombies move at an almost inhuman speed. Logical, really, because technically, they're not dead. Still living, they exist only to kill, though curiously, only to kill those not infected. And they don't eat, either. The presence of normal humans just pisses them off so much they can't think about anything else.

Despite their apparent mindlessness, they even seem capable of working together to herd panicked humans together for the slaughter, and occasionally even know when it's just no good to continue trying to outrun a car. Good thing for our heroes.

Because the rules of the convention say that a group of survivors must band together, Jim does encounter others. First come Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who rescue Jim from that church in a blaze of glory. Through them, Jim (and the audience) learns just what the heck really happened, though as filmgoers, we could already piece it together. None of their lessons stick, though, which soon enough costs them the life of Mark.

From there, however, the circumstantial couple meet Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), a father and daughter living in a high-rise, who leave the Christmas lights on as a symbol of hope in a desolate city. But can there really be hope? Even as dwindling supplies force them to think of fleeing (knowing that there's really nowhere to run), they pick up a radio signal from the north. A military unit broadcasts a message of salvation, if only the survivors can get out of the city and to a heavily fortified country estate.

And of course, once there, things aren't quite as advertised, and the difference between the infected and the healthy may become only obvious in the color of their eyes.

28 Days Later plays with many of the conventions set forth by George Romero in his Dead trilogy. In fact, the whole movie encompasses said trilogy, including a brief moment of consumerism run rampant. But while the film is effective in many ways, it doesn't quite have that lingering dread that would vault it into classic territory, preferring to exercise a bit of restraint. For a zombie riff, it's curiously low on the gore.

What it does have, however, is strong characterization. Even as Garland's script reduces the military men to stereotypes, Boyle allows for Christopher Eccleston's Major West to seem almost reasonable in his plans to maintain civilization. In the position of "conscientious objector," Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie) prophesies where the movie is going, a prophecy that will likely occur to you the second you understand just what the limitations of Rage are. But McQuarrie plays it with a conviction that makes you overlook the obvious: this guy is just asking to die.

The main leads are mostly powerful, though Murphy has a purposeful slow-wittedness about him that sometimes gets annoying. If this is the hope of humanity, intellectuals have to fear the future.

Out of necessity, Boyle filmed 28 Days Later in Digital Video. As a practical method, it allowed for quick shot set ups, which gave Boyle a better chance at capturing a deserted early Sunday morning London. As an artistic decision, it also gives the audience more of a voyeuristic feel. There's little difference between the film as a whole and the newsreel footage that a chimpanzee has been forced to watch (a la A Clockwork Orange) at the beginning of the film. It makes us somehow more complicit, like we're watching through the eyes of something that may burst through the camera and attack the characters at any moment.

Boyle tacks on a perhaps too cheerful denoument, but it does make sense by the rules of the story, even if it's at odds with the overall tone. 28 Days Later still manages to reach what the best horror tries to do: not just scare us, but actually say something.

If you want mindless, go see Full Throttle. But if you actually want something of depth that will still entertain you, see 28 Days Later.

What's It Worth? $7

Derek McCaw

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