The eerily and utterly empty streets of a looted London in the early scenes of "28 Days Later" are a perfectly chilling primer for the gritty neo-B-movie horror to follow in this incisive, underground-styled revival of the zombie flick genre.
Seen through the eyes of Jim (Cillian Murphy), an injured bicycle messenger who has just awoken from a coma in a deserted hospital, it seems as if he's the last person alive as he stumbles alone down street after echoing street in stolen scrubs and tennis shoes, bellowing "Helllloooo!" and getting no response except from frightened pigeons.
But he's not alone. Oh, boy is he not alone.
While Jim was comatose, a band of well-meaning animal-rights activists had attempted to free a handful of monkeys from a lab where they were quarantined with an unknown virus so powerful that any contact with contaminated body fluids almost instantaneously induces gory, guttural heaves and, within moments, a fierce, mindless, furiously cannibalistic bloodlust. As a struggle ensued the cages were opened, the activists and lab scientists were infected and now -- 28 days later -- Jim is about to be discovered by what's left of London's feral, zombiefied population, now starving for human flesh.
Written by cult author Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle -- who made a studio-diluted adaptation of Garland's "The Beach" in 2000 but is better known for the hip, stylish, drug-fueled cautionary tale "Trainspotting" -- "28 Days Later" is a return to Boyle's subversive roots.
Shot in inexpensive digital video (by experimental cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) and enhanced by an edgy punk-electronic score and staccato editing -- in which removed frames provide a jittery, fright-enhancing, sped-up visual effect -- the film is a reinvention of corny flesh-eating horror as a darkly comical, obliquely political reflection of modern disease scares (and ironically well-timed, what with the recent SARS panic).
Having escaped a terrifying swarm of fast-moving, sullied, bloody-eyed zombies with the help of two still-human survivors (one of whom will have to be mercilessly axe-murdered when tainted by zombie blood), Jim soon discovers his family is dead and all of England has been infected. "The day before the TV stop broadcasting," says the reluctantly but coldly realistic Selena (Naomie Harris), "there were reports of infection in Paris and New York."
But after discovering a father and teenage daughter (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) surviving in the top floors of a fortified high-rise, the group flees London in Gleeson's taxicab, following their one last hope -- a weak radio broadcast from an army unit in the countryside that begs in a suspiciously desperate tone, "You must find us! Salvation is here! The answer to infection is here!"
Boyle's brusque, economic, video-witness style and the strongly contrasting, on-edge performances build even more tension between characters than the film does through the largely unseen infected hoards -- which helps bridge the plot's gaps in logic. (Why haven't any of the survivors looted themselves guns or short-wave radios to see if the rest of the world is still broadcasting?)
As the humane and gauntly handsome Jim, Murphy portrays a losing struggle to find sane footing in this gruesome new world in which his character has awakened. Harris's gradual softening of callous, pretty Selena shows the young woman's cautious emerging optimism. The always-sublime Gleeson ("Gangs of New York," "The Tailor of Panama") provides a needed everyman touchstone whose only concern is his daughter's survival.
But all of these personalities eventually come into dangerous conflict with the borderline-despotic army major (severe-featured Christopher Eccelston in a piercingly unsettling performance) who is leading the small band of soldiers (from the radio message) down a path of ominously instinctual survivalism that is more alarming than the relentless zombie onslaught.
Scary, satisfying, ironic, uncanny and exponentially smarter than 99 percent of over-produced Hollywood horror, "28 Days Later" breathes credibly contemporary new life into the laughably clichéd concept of the walking dead.