(director: Danny Boyle; screenwriter: Alex Garland; cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle; editor: Chris Gill; music: John Murphy; cast: Cillian Murphy (Jim), Naomie Harris (Selena), Brendan Gleeson (Frank), Megan Burns (Hannah), Christopher Eccleston (Major Henry West), Noah Huntley (Mark), Luke Mably (Private Clifton), Stuart McQuarrie (Sergeant Farrell), Ricci Harnett (Corporal Mitchell), Ricci Harnett (Corporal Mitchell), Leo Bill (Private Jones), Sanjay Ramburuth (Private Davis); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Andrew Macdonald; Fox Searchlight Films; 2002-Netherlands/ UK / USA)

“Its power lies in how topical is its message.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mod British director Danny Boyle’s (“Trainspotting“/”The Beach“) postapocalyptic sci-fi horror venture is in digital video and shot in guerrilla-stye. Its purposefully intended grainy look is maintained when transferred to film. It offers a familiar dark and scary plot derivative of many popular horror films, while also reminding one of 9/11 and the recent SARS concerns. It was filmed post-9/11 and pre-SARS. Its zombie-like attackers are right out of George Romero’s B-films and its end of the world scenario reminds me of Ray Milland’s 1962 A Panic in Year Zero, while its unresolved teaser ending is similar to John Sayles’s Limbo. This nightmarish and dreary tale gets stuck on its grim cool style and on its didactic message of mankind’s basic evil nature and mankind’s false sense of security in the military and the government, and hardly moves into metaphorical territory or past all the destruction and wanton rage unleashed. It was hard to find an original idea in all this artful junk, but its power lies in how topical is its message and how frighteningly real terrorism has become to the world. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (he wrote the successful novel of The Beach in which Boyle turned unsuccessfully into a film) went for the simple and thereby missed an opportunity to land a powerful punch. But if you’re judging it by summer blockbuster standards, at least this one has some fizzle.

The film opens as a pack of animal rights activists break into a London research lab and despite the warnings of a scientist not to free the caged monkeys because they’ve been “virally infected with rage,” they nevertheless do and the screaming monkeys blood thirstily attack them. The monkeys had been watching videos of rioting to get them all aroused, which copies the conditioning techniques done in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (I would have just played the O. J. trial tapes or Bush’s State of the Union speech).

The film then moves on to 28 days later and bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy), who had been struck by a car, awakens from a coma in an empty intensive care unit of a London hospital. Still dressed in his hospital garb, he walks the eerily deserted streets of London and observes an empty Piccadilly Circus and crosses Westminster Bridge and observes Big Ben standing erect without any traffic. There’s a chilling end-of-the-world look as trash accumulates on the street and no life is detected, as the befuddled Jim doesn’t know what to make of this dark dreamscape. His fright echoes the viewer’s. In a church, among all the dead bodies, an infected priest with an insane wild look and all covered in blood, suddenly screams and attacks him. All the clamor attracts a crazed mob seemingly coming out of the woodwork and earnestly chasing Jim in the street. Two other souls come to his rescue and hurl a bomb to ward off the attacking zombies. They are a street-tough black chick, Selena, and a know-it-all upper-class type, Mark. Mark serves to fill in the audience and Jim about what’s going down and how the world’s population has been depleted by the spreading virus except for roaming bands of rabid zombies. Selena chimes in to say in a gruff tone that if either one of the men became infected by the virus, she would take them down in a heartbeat. Her weapon of choice is a machete. The scientific explanation for all this mumbo jumbo is that the virus spreads from saliva or an open wound administered by the zombies or from the vomiting of blood on the vic, and takes from 10 to 20 seconds to occur before it can’t be cured. So much for that scientific explanation, as we would have all been better off if we were spared that info. Instead, some humor or lively acting could have been injected into this morbid tale to deflect the downer mood.

Since it’s unsafe to be out alone and only during daylight is it safer to risk going out, the three daringly venture out to see Jim’s dead parents at his urgent request. But when attacked, they take to the road to find any sign of civilization and a way out of this dilemma. They encounter a father and daughter living in a skyscraper, as they observe Christmas lights flickering in their window. These two are also uninfected survivors, the jovial but excitable cabbie Frank (Gleeson) and his brooding daughter Hannah whom he is very protective of. When hearing on the radio a taped message for all survivors to seek shelter in a Manchester army barracks, the group takes Frank’s cab. On the road, they find glee in shopping in a supermarket stocked with a variety of items and no one there to stop them from taking whatever they want (this seems to be the must fun to be had in all the chaos).

In the third act, the survivors arrive in a country mansion compound and find quartered there not a brigade as announced but 9 soldiers under the command of Major West (Eccleston), whom they soon learn are as crazed as the rabid zombies on the streets. The major promised his men a future, and plans to hold the ladies for use as baby makers to jump start the continuation of the human race. Selena and Hannah would rather take their chances in the street than be gang raped, while the sensitive Jim refuses to desert the ladies-in-peril and resists the demented soldiers.

This is indeed heavy stuff for a popcorn movie viewer to digest. Unfortunately, there’s not much else but the heaviness to take away from this scenario. A gruesome look at a hellish situation, forgettable acting by the unknown stars, and direction that did not get to anything earth shattering but only onto some mild human parable about the evil that lurks within a selfish mankind and a cautionary political message. I took no enjoyment in this creepy and soulless exercise about the human condition, and have so far failed to warm to any of Boyle’s pics. I was not impressed by the way Boyle hammers home his pessimistic points about this catastrophe while failing to raise anything radical or something not already obvious about human nature.