Maddogs & English

Zombies take over England in 28 Days Later

IN Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle intoxicated moviegoers by capturing the delirious highs and destructive lows of heroin addiction. His new horror film 28 Days Later introduces a different kind of chemical that leaves an entire country wasted.

The skin-crawling yet thought-provoking 28 Days Later never quite spells out the nature of the virus that wreaks havoc on England. A prologue depicts animal rights activists who invade a sinister lab to free its primate test subjects, despite a scientist’s warnings that they’ve been “infected with rage.” When the animals savagely attack — and contaminate — their liberators, we discover that he wasn’t being figurative.

Then, as the title says, it’s 28 days later, and a young bicycle messenger named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in a London hospital bed. He’s been comatose after a head injury and gradually realizes that the hospital — and the rest of London — has been inexplicably abandoned. Like one of those where-is-everybody? “Twilight Zone” episodes, Jim puzzles over the deserted streets, abandoned cars and rows of telephones with receivers dangling like bodies on a gallows.

He enters a church, where he’s attacked by a twitching, spasmodic priest, then rescued by young people throwing Molotov cocktails. Jim’s saviors, including beautiful but frosty Selena (Naomie Harris), bring him up to speed. England has been afflicted by a virus that turns its victims into raving berserkers. Alex Garland’s script doesn’t explain why “the infected” avoid sunlight or what they feed on, but it explains that anyone who touches tainted blood will attack anything that moves.

The film’s marauders aren’t technically “undead,” but 28 Days Later lives up to the conventions of the zombie movie, with a certain Britishness distinguishing it from George Romero’s “living dead” movies. Boyle injects some post-punk humor in the margins, like the graffito “The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.” Father-and-daughter survivors Frank and Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) attract Jim and Selena by flashing Christmas lights from their block of flats.

With all services down and most of England’s populace either dead or psychotic, 28 Days Later strips survival down to its essence. Frank ruefully shows Jim his rooftop buckets and sheets for gathering rainwater, rendered useless due to an ongoing drought — in England. Selena and Jim argue whether they should join forces with Frank and Hannah: What good are “good people” if they slow you down?

The quartet becomes an extended family, and all four actors prove fittingly natural, their understatement barely concealing their desperation at their straits. Murphy subtly suggests Jim’s growing maturity. He begins as a youth requiring protection (his first priority is to check on his parents), but he becomes a father figure willing to defend his “family” by any means necessary.

But the film doesn’t forget to frighten its audience. Fleeing London, Jim and company get a flat tire in an underground tunnel, where fleeing rats herald an attack by the infected. Later the group catches a glimpse of Manchester, which fire and neglect have reduced to a smoldering ruin.

Compared to the routine atrocities of most zombie films, 28 Days Later shows some restraint, but it will horrify those squeamish at the sight of blood. Boyle knows that his audience doesn’t require elaborate makeup effects, since what we imagine is always scarier than what we actually see. Every time the infected appear, they’re either in constant motion or eerie shadows, leaving us with nightmarish impressions instead of clear glimpses.

The last act loosens some of the finely drawn tension by taking a detour into Lord of the Flies territory. The group reaches a military outpost near Manchester, under the command of a high-strung major (Christopher Eccleston) with cultivated tastes. The base at first seems like the last hold-out of civilization, but it turns out to be as savage as the rest of the nation.

28 Days Later proves to be a nifty throwback to apocalyptic movies of the 1970s, with Eccleston playing the equivalent to a militaristic Charlton Heston role. With its grown-up themes balancing the gross-out scenes, 28 Days Later makes the end of civilization seem almost preferable to keeping it around.