Zombie movies, at their best, appeal to a specialized audience - one that delights in the gruesome, bloody, perversely funny or stomach-churningly horrific. Every once in a while, though, a zombie flick comes up with something new or amusingly off-the-wall, and for a while, "28 Days Later" seems to be lurching into that category. It's an end-of-the-world movie with some smarts and attitude from Danny Boyle, the flashy Scot director of "Trainspotting" and "The Beach." It's about a rage virus that sweeps over England, making its victims act like crazed zombies and leaving a handful of survivors to cope with the murderous, infected mobs in abandoned cities and ravaged countrysides.
Perhaps that's inevitable. Alex Garland, who was the novelist and screenwriter on "The Beach," wrote the script here, too. And "28 Days," along with its gore and the pseudo-hip characterizations, suffers from the same tendency toward social preaching and sexual hysteria you could see in "Beach," with another half-promising notion whipped into pointless frenzy.
Unlike the classic end-of-the-world movies, "28 Days" doesn't have a hint of nuclear apocalypse. The madly infectious virus stems from artificially induced psychoses developed in test monkeys, and in 28 days it reduces England to mass chaos and slaughter. Boyle and Garland cleverly introduce their protagonist, quiet, long-haired Jim (Cillian Murphy), after his recovery from a coma. He discovers the effects of the virus - a gray London with bare, savage streets - after waking up in an abandoned hospital. Wandering through wrecked London, seemingly abandoned except for psycho rage-heads, he watches these violent victims killing and infecting at will.
Soon Jim hooks up with Selena (Naomie Harris), a hard-bitten survivor so tough she chops off the head of a close friend as soon as he's infected, and the two seek shelter first with father and daughter Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), who are holed up in a high-rise. Then, responding to a radio call from a military outpost somewhere near Manchester, the four break out to the country in a well-stocked black cab - which only prompts more catastrophes and a horrible revelation after they finally find the "safe haven" promised by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston).
The first part of the movie, in London, is by far the best, starting with a dark, edgy prelude that introduces the main idea of a rage virus in a burglarized British laboratory, with exaggerated noir effects. There's also political satire: fanatic animal rights activists unthinkingly unleash chaos on England by attacking the lab and freeing the mad monkeys. Boyle really hits his stride in the London scenes, with their burnt-out scariness and sense of civilization hitting the skids.
What goes wrong, though, may be the movie's over-reliance on having a hip take on an old, often cheesy genre. The ideas here aren't very juicy. Four decades ago, there was a terrific British end-of-the-world thriller, Val Guest's 1962 film "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," which packed in almost twice as much character, social detail and honest tension as "28 Days," and also seemed on fire with a good idea: an attack on the Cold War arms race.
By contrast, the rage virus, doesn't resonate as well, and by the time the four characters hit the road to Manchester, the moviemakers have nearly exhausted their stock of surprises. (They have one left, and it falls as flat as an overturned gravestone.) We could still well be destroyed by bombs and nukes. But can anyone seriously be worried about a rage virus let loose by rampaging animal activists? The whole thing seems either a post-punk Sex Pistols-style nightmare or even a typically British attack on boorish behavior - and I'm sure the last thing these filmmakers want is to be regarded as is "typically British." Except for the unengaging Murphy, the cast rises above the material. Murphy (from "Disco Pigs") is such a recessive actor, he's hard to remember, not only when he's off-screen, but when he's on-screen as well.
Good as Eccleston can be, the anti-militarism parable that develops is just too obvious to be suspenseful. More interesting is Harris, who has a vibrant presence as Selena. And best of all is the usually excellent Gleeson ("The General," "Gangs of New York") as a staunchly paternal survivalist trapped in hell.
Though I thought director Boyle's and producer Andrew Macdonald's widely praised debut movie, the noirish "Shallow Grave," was overly stylized and a bit overrated, "Trainspotting," from Irvine Welsh's novel about the Edinburgh heroin scene, was a real breakthrough. So why did Boyle then get lost in the "Lord of the Flies"-on-acid seaside sermons of "The Beach," the inanities of the angels-and-lovers fantasy "A Life Less Ordinary" and, finally, this cold-blooded zombie romp?
Boyle's best recent work is the short BBC film "Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise," with a brilliant performance by Timothy Spall as an obnoxious vacuum cleaner salesman. That's the kind of stuff you'd like to see Boyle do - focusing on mad modern life instead of the wandering undead. "28 Days Later" tries to freeze our blood but winds up dying - just like the inhabitants of its unmerry old England.
"28 Days Later"
Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland; photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Chris Gill; production designed by Mark Tildesley; sound design by Glenn Freemantle; produced by Andrew Macdonald. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, June 27. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (language, sex and violence).
Jim - Cillian Murphy
Selena - Naomie Harris
Frank - Brendan Gleeson
Hannah - Megan Burns
Maj. Henry West - Christopher Eccleston
Mark - Noah Huntley