28 Days Later

(2003) *** 1/2 R
108 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston.

"The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the organ when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature." —Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

Author Alex Garland made his name with the novel The Beach, which director Danny Boyle fashioned into a 2000 film. Now Garland has written an original screenplay for Boyle's film 28 Days Later, a razor-sharp examination of the duality of human nature. That the film is also a genre exercise--a zombie-horror film--makes its thoughtful reflection and depth of emotion all the more surprising. As such, those who would never be caught dead at a zombie flick will miss out on a unique experience: an artful and humane horror film.

Garland and Boyle pay tribute to genre precursors such as The Omega Man and The Day of the Triffids, as their hero Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in an empty hospital in a deserted London. In this virtuosic extended sequence, the basest of human instincts immediately and irrationally take hold: Jim gathers up bank notes and stuffs them in his hospital scrubs before stumbling into a nest of once-human, now-feral zombies. He soon learns that a blood-borne "rage" virus seized England 28 days earlier. Small bands of survivors attempt to stay alive by dodging the pervasive zombies, while searching for signs of civilized salvation. Jim's gradual awakening rings true; when he hears of the breakdown of society, he blusters, "There's always a government."

Jim becomes part of a small group, and the film develops as a sort of dysfunctional family drama with its characters under the worst of strain. Among them, eventually, are an actual father and daughter (reliable Brendan Gleeson and fresh-faced Megan Burns). The occasion of their introduction exemplifies the film's strengths: a pulse-pounding chase subsides, then the characters quiet themselves, a pregnant look passing between father and daughter as he passes her a glass of her mothers crème de menthe. The menace never evaporates, but Boyle brilliantly taps human gestures--on screen and in the seats--to ground the certain amount of foolishness on which most horror films depend. The cast is up to the task; Boyle has an especially appealing lead in Murphy, whose mid-picture superficial transformation elicits a perfect, stunning response. The moment also prefigures a deeper change for the bicycle courier turned primal warrior.

Boyle makes virtuous use of digital video, using tight, jittery framing for kinetic action sequences which, at times, scare more for their obscurity. The blow-up to film also gives the film a washed-out, blurry look which unsettlingly implies the film is documentary evidence of man's last will and testament. Boyle manages not only grottiness but ethereal beauty, with unexpected moments of color (and humor) amidst the gloom and atrocity. One section apparently shot on film upends our visual expectations to good effect.

Finally, 28 Days Later is not only a wickedly clever action-suspense-fright film but also a movie for the moment, just as the irradiated-monster sci-fi of the fifties bespoke fear of the bomb. The infection of rage ("people killing people," as the characters articulate it) catalyzes the rapid degeneration of the orderly institutions in which we place our faith and our lives. The story of mankind put to the test reveals the best and then the worst in people. Garland again questions the role of civilization in tempering basic human instincts, but offers hope that "better angels of our nature," too, wait to emerge.

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