28 days later...

D: Danny Boyle
S: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris

Pretty good horror flick, essentially a compression of George Romero's 'Living Dead' trilogy into ninety minutes. Following a botched eco-warrior raid on a top secret medical research facility, a deadly plague decimates the population of the UK. 28 days after the first appearance of the disease, which turns those infected into screaming, murderous maniacs, Irish bicycle courier Cillian Murphy (Disco Pigs) wakes up in a London hospital eerily bereft of human occupancy. Unaware of what has happened, he wanders the empty streets strewn with the debris of a collapsed civilisation until he runs into his first batch of 'infected', who pursue him howling through the streets. He is then rescued by armed survivors Naomie Harris and Noah Huntley, and so begins a post-apocalyptic odyssey of a kind we've seen many times before, done in a cheap and cheerful manner by director Danny Boyle from a script by Alex Garland.

The strongest card played by Boyle and Garland with this film is its modesty. In contrast to the extremely pretty, high profile, big budget mediocrity of The Beach, the director and writer have, in the age-old tradition of film industry survival, gone back to basics. 28 days later... takes a proven formula and runs with it at extremely low cost. Roger Corman would be proud. Using clever cheating camera angles, some image manipulation, and working with a small and friendly cast, Boyle has managed to deliver a full-bore apocalyptic horror with an absolute minimum of expenditure. This of course recalls the gambit which made Romero's original Night of the Living Dead so effective, where the film's ultra-low budget look worked to increase the sense of immediacy and realism.

Unfortunately for Boyle and Garland, what was still both fresh and shocking in 1968 is now standard genre fare. Like any tale of the apocalypse, the real focus of the film is the value (and values) of the civilisation which has been destroyed and may or may not be rebuilt. What elements of human society are worth preserving, what virtues in human nature make it worth rooting for the survivors, and what vices in our character are represented by the forces threatening stability (and, usually, life and limb)? Though Garland throws one or two wrinkles into the thematic and narrative mix, the plot and characterisation follow pretty much the expected route, reprising the highlights of Romero's trilogy right down to the eventual arrival of megalomaniacal martinet Christopher Eccleston (Elizabeth) whose 'final solution' to the problem of infection is far from surprising once you've seen Day of the Dead. The script also bears some comparison with The Beach, not least of all in its utopia/dystopica dicohotomy and its climactic rampage scenes which call to mind Apocalypse Now as readily as Night of the Living Dead.

The film's most effective polemical scene is its opening, where an array of gruesome images drawn from television news footage depicts what we presume to be the imagined fall of civilisation, only to be revealed as documentary material from the world of the present. This sets the thematic tone for the rest of the film and, like most of the rest of it, it works. 28 days later... delivers the shocks and scares with admirable invention given the budgetary constraints, and the film manages to involve you in the human plight of its central characters thanks to solid performances from Murphy, Harris, and Megan Burns as a teenage girl they pick up on the way, but most especially because of Brendan Gleeson's (The General, I Went Down) excellent turn as a tough but likable taxi driver who has barricaded himself into a residential tower block with his daughter.

Though unpleasant in tone, the film actually represents more violence than it actually shows. Again with the help of clever cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle and editing by Chris Gill, scenes of explicit nastiness are mostly handled through suggestion. With the additional help of disconcerting sound effects and careful use of make-up, the film gives the impression of being much more gory than it really is. This creates some contrast with the Romero films, where Tom Savini's effects frequently took centre stage rather unnecessarily as far as getting to the point of things was concerned. Boyle and Garland prefer to move ahead with their story, and even bring it to a point of resolution which Romero has yet to reach, all in a fraction of the timespan of the 'dead' films.

Though wildly overpraised in the press, 28 days later... is not at all bad. It combines skill and low-budget abandon in a way which makes it superior to many genre entries without offering any kind of revolution. It certainly has more going on that is worthwhile than the comparatively recent Resident Evil, but it may win less fans among the diehards due to its stylistic eccentricities. Boyle fans may enjoy it, but there are less visual flourishes on display than in either Shallow Grave or Trainspotting. That said the entire project has enough flair and energy to begin the process of restoring his reputation after A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.