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28 Days Later

The film opens with a group of animal rights activists breaking into a lab to set the test animals free. A technician warns them that the chimps have all been infected with rage, a highly contagious virus that provokes uncontrollable violence. They ignore his warning and release the animals that immediately attack and infect them. Cut to 28 days later. England is an eerily deserted wasteland. In an hospital, a young man awakes from a coma and wanders the streets as if he were the last human on earth. But then darkness falls and Jim (Cillian Murphy) meets up with his first infected creature -- a red-eyed, violently spazzing priest -- who pursues him with single-minded determination. As Jim flees, he encounters Selena (Naomi Harris), a hardened survivor who gives him the low down on the situation. She tells him that most of England has been wiped out and that the infection spreads through blood. A single drop of infected blood that enters your mouth, eyes or open wound is all you need to become one of them, and the transformation occurs in less than 30 seconds. And in that brief moment, you see all humanity wiped out from the victim. One of the films most disturbing and touching scenes occurs when an infected man, knowing that he'll soon be turning on those around him, takes his last seconds to express his love to the child he leaves behind.

As Jim and Selena search for food and safe shelter, they meet up with Frank (Brendan Glesson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) who've been hearing broadcasts about an outpost in Manchester that promises a cure. With no other alternatives in sight, the quartet of survivors take Frank's old cab and head for Manchester. When they arrive, they discover a small band of army men led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccelston) who have an agenda of their own amidst this post-apocalyptic chaos. And it's at this point that Boyle makes us wonder if the infected are really all that different from the uninfected. In a sense, the film offers its creatures as the logical extreme of humankind's bent for violence and social rage.

28 Days Later opens with newsreel footage of real violence from around the world and Boyle connects those images with the virus-induced carnage at the end. And the virus, Boyle reminds us, was created by men in a lab. Boyle's film in essence offers an indictment against a society that creates this rage. There's also a hint of William Golding's Lord of the Flies here as we see that people stripped of the trappings of civilization reveal a dark heart.

Boyle and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle shoot the film in digital video in an attempt to play off of the opening TV news footage of violence. It's a stylistic choice that works exceedingly well. The video makes the images feel more immediate and first hand as if the survivors are documenting the events themselves. The filmmakers also capture a lovely stillness and eeriness in the deserted shots of the city. The extended emptiness of those images is amazing and chilling. All in all, they create a highly effective look for their modern tale of horror.

The script by Alex Garland (who wrote the book The Beach that Boyle brought to the screen) borrows elements from the book I am Legend , Romero's zombie films, David Croneberg's Rabid and last man on earth flicks like The Omega Man and The Quiet Earth . Garland pulls these elements together in efficient fashion to craft a smart, scary film. The only place where Garland and Boyle falter is in the final moments. There's a tacked on ending that doesn't match all that has come before. Romero's Night of the Living Dead had the nerve to see its dark tale to a logical bleak end but Boyle's film cops out to the demands of Hollywood in the final reel and that's a shame.

28 Days Later (rated R for violence, language and some sexual situations) falls just short of being a horror classic but it re-invigorates the genre in a way that's exciting for fans like myself. Boyle does not deliver a jokey gorefest but rather a serious horror effort that chills us with its portrait of a possible future. And what's most scary is that the danger comes from something within us rather than some alien invader or threat from nature.

Companion viewing: Any or all of Romero's Dead Trilogy , they stand up remarkably well and are classic examples of the zombie film. Plus they deserve more recognition than they have received.

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