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28 Days Later By Matt Singer
Zombies are definitely scarier than vampires. Even though they both have an unholy craving for human flesh, vampires are intelligent and, one always hopes, can be reasoned with. Zombies will hear none of your excuses, they just want the sweet, sweet juices your brain floats in. 28 Days Later makes zombies even scarier, by making them much faster more vicious than their cinematic predecessors, and by creating them through events that eerily mirror our own world. The advertising boasts that director Danny Boyle has reinvented the zombie genre, and he’s just about done it.
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The zombies are caused when some well-intentioned, but foolish (and possibly dirty) animal activists release some monkeys from a Cambridge research facility who have been infected with “rage.” Ignoring the warnings, the monkeys go ape, and before you can say “Uh oh” the humans are vomiting blood and tearing each other to pieces. We cut to black and a small title appears in the bottom right corner: “28 Days Later...” Here, we meet Jim (Cillian Murphy) totally naked in a bed in an abandoned London hospital. He stumbles into consciousness and then wanders the streets of the deserted city. Though we know Boyle employed traffic cops and attractive women to get these incredible shots, their power is not diminished: these minutes have a edgier end-of-the-world vibe than anything Terminator 3 could cook up with $170 million in special effects.
Boyle, who made the supremely cool Trainspotting before spending the last several years on critical and commercial flops, shot 28 Days Later in grainy, ugly digital video, and his zombie attack scenes cut and move with jittery jabs and slashes as if the camera itself was infected with Rage. The digital video was picked as much for its ease and speed as its look, but the natural, washed out colors only enhance the audience’s unease. The zombies are fast and remorseless, and once they infect you (by biting you or getting their blood into your own), there’s only a few seconds before you become a zombie yourself. There’s no cure, and no hope. Boyle kills off characters with a brutality that rivals his virus-laden creations.
Jim hooks up with the apocalyptically sexy Selena (Naomie Harris), and father-daughter survivors Frank and Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns). As survival in London gets tougher and tougher, they hear a single radio broadcast, offering salvation from the infection at a location outside of Manchester. Eventually, the group finds these survivors, an assortment of soldiers led by Major West (Christopher Eccleston), who do offer some solutions for our heroes, along with additional problems. Boyle manages to make us care about these people, then rips our hearts out when the meet their fates, and the script by Alex Garland is both potent and efficient. While the final act at the army base is less terrifying than the city scenes, the philosophizing on survivalism, particularly within the male psyche, is welcome, and the almost EVIL DEAD-ish evolution of Murphy’s Jim emphatically solidifies 28 Days Later’s rep as a cool film.
Boyle’s dabbled in numerous genres, but he is a natural at the basics of good horror: characters we can get behind, and scares that genuinely frighten. His 28 Days Later also adds a topical dimension that is almost always missing from mainstream horror and slasher film, and it certainly gives scenes like the empty London and even queasier dimension. I don’t expect him to linger here - I have heard his next film mostly stars children - but it would be nice if he returns to horror in the future. It would be great to see him spin new stories with vampires, or mummies, or even giant fire-breathing lizards. He makes you believe that even the oldest ideas are capable of new, exciting interpretations.