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'28 Days Later' takes zombie horror to a much scarier level

| Friday, June 27, 2003

In the narrow movie-making genre of post-apocalyptic horror, British director Danny Boyle (of "Trainspotting" fame) has finally crafted a worthy heir to Pittsburgher George Romero's immortal "Night of the Living Dead" trilogy.

And boy, is it scary.

It's a zombie movie, yes, but sometimes that's a surprisingly effective vessel for social commentary. Remember Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," where the living dead flesh-eaters returned to Monroeville Mall, instinctively reliving their days as unthinking consumers of less tender goods•

These aren't your dad's zombies, though. First of all, they're not dead.

Setting: England, present day. A lab is filled with monkeys, infected with a virus that drives them into insane fits of violent rage. One monkey is strapped to a table and forced to watch, "A Clockwork Orange"-style, video of riots, terror and murder, as researchers attempt to study the biochemical and psychological roots of human violence.

Suddenly, a group of animal-rights activists breaks into the lab. The monkeys are liberated from their cages. One of the activists gets bitten. Twitching and spitting blood, she attacks her nearest comrade with hands and teeth.

Twenty-eight days later, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up alone in a room in an abandoned London hospital. He was in a bike accident and had been in a coma for weeks. He stumbles down the vacant hospital hallways, looking for someone -- anyone -- to help him get his bearings. He tries a row of payphones. The lines are all dead.

Outside, London is a ghost town. The streets are covered with trash. Red double-decker buses are overturned. Newspapers and notices tacked to walls frantically -- but vaguely -- warn of catastrophe. Piccadilly Circus might as well be the moon for all the life it holds. Jim stumbles into a church. Bodies cover the pews. The priest enters from the vestibule, but there's something wrong with his shambling, jerky gait, and his eyes. Jim runs.

The Infected can run, too.

It's not clear why movies about the end of the world continue to fascinate us, but this one couldn't have come at a scarier time. The news is filled with mysterious infections -- SARS, monkeypox -- swamped hospital wards and quarantines. Irrational violence ricochets out of control in the Middle East, Iraq, the Congo. People everywhere seem infected by an incurable, suicidal rage.

In "28 Days Later," every human infected becomes a viral bomb. Sure, as a metaphor for our troubled times, it lacks subtlety -- but it still works. There are enough shocks here for even the most hardcore horror fiend, but it's the atmosphere of palpable, contagious dread and menace yet unseen that is truly unsettling.

Boyle shoots it all on digital video, with style and economy that's more Dogma 95 than "Blair Witch." He has a few CGI tricks up his sleeve, but most of the real fear is created by Boyle's jittery, grainy, documentary-like lens and curiously angled shots, which matter-of-factly capture the action like well placed security cameras. Like in "Trainspotting," a superior use of cutting-edge music -- pop and otherwise -- also sets the film apart.

Jim hooks up with two pairs of survivors, who seem to be alone in a city of the dead. Brendan Gleeson, as usual, is brilliant as a garrulous taxicab driver who holes up with his daughter in a tomb-like high rise. Newcomer Naomie Harris also is great as Selena, a hard-edged pharmacist whose icy determination to survive makes her magnetic and terrifying. Surviving often means that the uninfected have to be even more vicious and brutal than the Infected to survive.

There are a few glaring inconsistencies that don't hold up upon reflection, for example -- why don't the Infected attack each other• Still, for sheer scariness, nothing in the past three years comes close. Unlike the majority of reviews out there, I'd rather not give away the ending. But let's just say that the Infected are not the worst danger that Jim and his friends face. Whether "Rage" consumes them or not, it's always boiling just beneath the surface. Focusing it and using it might be the only thing that keeps one alive in a world quite literally gone mad.

Additional Information:

Details

'28 Days Later'

Director: Danny Boyle.

Stars: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris.

MPAA Rating: R, for violence, profanity.

Three and a half stars

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