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28 Days Later

28 Days Later

Rated R, 108 min. Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston, Noah Huntley.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 27, 2003

A friend who was at last week’s sneak of Alex & Emma related to me the story of a post-screening discussion between two strangers – one in favor of the film, one against – that grew so contentious that the dissenter ultimately spat on his sparring partner. That in itself is frightful, but it takes on a whole new connotation after watching 28 Days Later, a low-budget, British, epidemic film in which an incurable disease is spread through projectile vomiting. Granted, the great deluge of blood & bile that comes streaming out of the mouths of the infected is a far cry from a lugie lobbed at a moviegoer, but they don’t call ’em slippery slopes for nothing. Filmed before SARS hit, the eerily prescient 28 Days Later holds fast to the tropes of horror but never slides into the schlock so common to the genre. The prologue sets the scene for devastation: A group of animal-rights activists break into a lab in order to liberate tested-on chimpanzees, unaware that the animals are infected with a virus known only as "rage." Cut to 28 days later, as a man named Jim (Murphy) awakes from a coma in a hospital ICU to find himself completely alone. In one of the most chilling cinematic images of late, Jim wanders the streets – past Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the Thames River – finding zero sign of life. A quick glance at the papers – now days old – and the pieces begin to fall into place: Seems Jim already missed all the panic on the streets of London (and Paris and New York), and what’s left appears to be a whole lot of nothing. Would that that were the case: Instead, there are legions of infected – rabid-eyed, unthinking, and ready to pounce. Jim joins up with a pocket of survivors, including a machete-wielding toughie named Selena (Harris), and heads toward Manchester, lured by a scratchy radio broadcast that promises a military outpost and safety from infection. 28 Days Later is undeniably a zombie flick, a highly topical updating of Night of the Living Dead, with all the shocks and shudders that lineage would suggest. There’s gore, all right, although the real terror lies in the tease, and the often dark, herky-jerky DV format ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. But viewers not so enamored with horror – or those, like myself, who respond to the genre with a cry for a blankie, a glass of milk, and the night-light left on, please – will find comfort in the film’s dedication to do more than jump-start the heart: In its blessed stretches of quietude, 28 Days Later offers a heartfelt rumination on humans’ ability to build new families when old ones are lost. Into the darkness flood moments of such lightness – stallions bounding about uninfected, a shared laugh at something silly – that when lives are lost, the result is not just another upticking of the body count, but a real cause for mourning. That powerfulness is in part due to the actors – mostly unknown stateside – who, in the midst of all the running, shrieking, and slashing, achieve real character arcs. But the loudest hurrah goes to director Danny Boyle, who shot to the moon with his second feature, Trainspotting, and later fell to the Earth with the dull thud that was The Beach (based on a book by Alex Garland, who scripted 28 Days Later). Here, Boyle reclaims the kicky, breathless high of Trainspotting and his debut Shallow Grave, producing a scrapper of a film that unnerves long after the last zombie has been put to bed. (Note: Beginning July 25, a new film ending has been substituted.)
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