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28 Days Later Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image This movie came out of nowhere. Certainly the previous career of director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Beach”) gave not even the slightest hint that he was capable of this work. Also, it was shot quickly on a very low budget with digital video equipment. But the results were so powerful as to border on stunning: an intense, perfectly paced, science fiction/horror thriller. It’s remarkably suspenseful, even on repeated viewings; the cast is expert, the locations well chosen, and the story compelling and all too believable.

It opens in the Cambridge Primate Research Center; animal activists have broken in and want to free the “imprisoned” monkeys and chimpanzees. A lab worker tries desperately to prevent this, warning the intruders that the primates have been infected with a powerfully infectious disease that causes unbridled rage—and it can be passed on to human beings. But the activists are nothing if not fanatical, and free a chimp—which savagely attacks its rescuers.

A title card reads “28 Days Later…” Jim (Cillian Murphy), in hospital for surgery, awakens to a world that’s mysteriously silent. He wanders about the deserted hospital, awash in signs of a previous panic, then out into the empty streets of London. He occasionally sees dead bodies—and then, in a church, a lot of them. But they’re not all dead: a priest, literally foaming at the mouth, attacks him furiously, but Jim gets away. There are imaginatively-conceived signs of riots in the past; the receivers of a row of pay phones dangle silently. Then he encounters Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), a tough, frightened couple who tell him what happened. That rage-causing disease swept through the population; as soon as someone catches the disease (usually by being bitten, sometimes by blood), they become insane with murderous rage, incapable of rational thought. Almost as an example, when they kill one of the infected, his blood gets into Mark’s mouth—and Selena immediately kills him.

She and Jim eventually find another survivor, Frank (Brendan Gleeson), who lives with his young daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) on an upper floor of an otherwise deserted apartment building. They’re ingenious—he’s set out an array of buckets and other containers to catch rainwater. But since there’s no government, no police, no Army, no radio, no TV, they’re at a loss as to what to do next.

But a mysterious radio signal leads them to think someone might still be alive in the north, so they set out together. Things get bad, and then they get worse, even after encountering Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) and the handful of Army enlistees under his command.

Boyle is very good in terms of timing and pacing, and how to measure out intensity. It’s bad enough when the small band is moving cautiously through the streets of London in an SUV, but then they have to go through an automotive tunnel. They keep encountering shrieking hordes of the infected, but such scenes of noise and violence are followed by measured, quieter scenes. The use of sound is intelligent and creative; no scene in the city is ever entirely quiet—there’s always something going on in the near or far distance. The score is less successful; there’s always a little music in the background, which becomes somewhat intrusive.

In the commentary, he and writer Alex Garland are relatively open regarding their influences. One that many viewers may catch is John Wyndham’s excellent novel “Day of the Triffids,” which also opens in a near-deserted London hospital, and has several other elements in common with “28 Days Later.” But this isn’t thievery; it’s a judicial use of influences. “Night of the Living Dead” is, to a degree, another influence, but that movie and its successors are about slow-moving, shambling, cannibalistic walking corpses. The infected in “28 Days Later” and very fast and agile, and they’re alive (though given to occasionally vomiting blood). It’s not entirely clear what they do to the victims they so vigorously pursue, but it does end in the deaths of those they catch.

The cast is, of course, small and hand-picked; the always-good Brendan Gleeson is especially welcome, even though his character doesn’t last very long. Naomie Harris, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, is strikingly beautiful, but that’s not an issue here; she’s frightened, but she isn’t handicapped by her fear—she’s empowered. Initially, she’s guarded, almost hostile, to Jim; it’s completely convincing when this turns to affection.

Cillian Murphy can play just about anything he’s physically suited for, and has demonstrated his versatility again and again, including in Boyle’s less-successful “Sunshine,” released in mid-2007. He has an almost ascetic face, that of a sensitive poet, but he was completely convincing as the self-amusing villain in “Red Line.”

Boyle and Garland provide a particularly intelligent commentary track, pointing out that they were trying for lean exposition—to leave out as much as they possibly could. The movie began production before 9/11, continued during it, and was largely shot in sequence. With very little money, they had to resort to extreme ingenuity in creating the illusion that London is almost depopulated.

“Pure Rage: The Making of ’28 Days Later’ is a fairly standard making-of documentary shot in an irritatingly “artistic” style. Harris, Boyle, Murphy, Gleeson, Eccleston, Burns and Garland all appear to good effect. We learn that almost every scene was shot with several cameras, allowing for supple editing later on. One idea they emphasize, and which gave rise to the film initially, is that our complacent society is particularly susceptible to new epidemics. Not long ago, almost all of Britain was put under quarantine for a virulent outgreak of foot and mouth disease. It’s interesting to see the deserted-London scenes without the yellow-toned overlay the scenes have in the film.

The other extras are less interesting—I presume. I could not access the still gallery. There seemed to be no mention of the sequel, “28 Weeks Later,” which was good but inferior to this one. There are several alternate endings, including one only in storyboard form; the one on the film is the best of those available. A movie as intense and apocalyptic as this, featuring a small, likeable group struggling to survive usually should have a moderately hopeful ending—otherwise why were we even shown these courageous efforts?

One problem: the film was made in a deliberately crude, amateurish-looking style, shot on low-resolution digital video. So why has Fox even bothered to release it in Blu-Ray? The Lossless audio track is very good, but the images are low-resolution and raw—just as in theaters. This is a strong, affecting movie, but it didn’t need high-definition video release.

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