Ebola fever, mad cow disease, SARS, monkeypox ' it's beginning to seem like the whole world has become one vast hot zone, where everything that matters is taking place on the microbial level. I'm literally afraid to walk in my backyard sometimes; who knows where those mosquitoes have been? 28 Days Later, which imagines a viral epidemic that wipes out all of England, if not the entire planet, is hardly the first movie to pick up on this fear. We all remember Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman running around barking orders in a hazard suit. But this is one of the few movies that have taken the fear seriously. Although it finally succumbs to a bad case of social commentatis, the mood that director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) sets early on is still with you later that night, when everybody else is sleeping.
We open with a PETA nightmare ' a research lab in which chimpanzees have been infected with the so-called Rage virus. Some are bouncing off the walls of their glass cages. One is strapped to a gurney, its abdominal organs exposed as if for an upcoming operation. Another is hooked up to electrodes and placed before a bank of video monitors, the screens filled with news footage of riots, hangings, shootings. This allusion to A Clockwork Orange, where Alex was conditioned like Pavlov's dog, seems deliberate, but the chimps aren't there to be cured of anything. And when a guerrilla group of animal activists breaks into the lab to rescue the prisoners, they get a little more than they bargained for. A quick lunge at the jugular and the Rage virus is unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Then it's 28 days later, and we're in a hospital, where a young man (Cillian Murphy) is tethered to various IVs. He's just woken up from a coma, we eventually learn, but right now he appears to be the last person on the face of the earth ' Omega Man. And these are the scenes that linger in our minds. Donning hospital scrubs, the bewildered patient wanders out into the streets of London, which are deserted. Souvenir models of Big Ben litter the bridge leading to the British Parliament. A double-decker bus is turned on its side. And the sky has a murky yellowish cast. Overall, the effect is the opposite of movie-ish. And Boyle takes some chances, letting whole minutes go by without much in the way of dialogue or even sound. All I heard, in fact, was the crunch-crunch of my neighbors chewing nervously on their popcorn.
The young man isn't alone, it turns out. Instead, he's trapped in a George Romero movie ' Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead all rolled into one. But where Romero's "living dead" had the halting gait of Frankenstein or the Mummy (slow, but inexorable), Boyle's "dead living" seem turbo-charged, their approach slightly blurred via strobing. Personally, I was more creeped out by Romero's zombies, if only because they tended to savor their meals, clean their plates. Boyle's zombies seem satisfied once they've passed on the virus. Also, they're just not around all that much. Romero set Night of the Living Dead in a Pennsylvania farmhouse, with the attacks coming in waves. 28 Days Later roams all over England and yet runs into only a handful of the critters. Did they have a previous engagement?
Like so many movies, 28 Days Later is at its best when it's laying out the ground rules. How is the virus transmitted? How long does it take for symptoms to occur? Do the infected only come out at night? During the day? How easy is it to kill one? And how do you know it's dead? We learn the answers to these questions when the young man does, after meeting up with some fellow survivors. Then the movie takes a rather bizarre turn when he and the others ' a young woman (Naomie Harris), a middle-aged man (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter (Megan Burns) ' join a military unit that's set up camp on a country estate near Manchester. Largely message-free up to that point, 28 Days Later suddenly gets a bee in its bonnet about soldiers, especially soldiers who haven't seen a woman in over 28 days.
Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, had a message too ' America devouring itself. But the message was embedded in the story, a subtext. Whereas Boyle and scriptwriter Alex Garland have blown their message up to billboard size: A good soldier is a dead soldier. What a poor excuse for a moral, given that the movie is crawling with flesh-eating zombies. There was reportedly a tug-of-war between Boyle and Garland over whether they were making an art film or a genre flick. The genre flick appears to have won, if you ask me, but what I like most about the movie are its arty touches: the line of dangling phone receivers, which suggests there's nobody home, and the liturgical music that Boyle layers over scenes of impending carnage. Clearly, humanity doesn't have a prayer.