Horror fans take note: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is the real deal. This genuinely scary post-apocalyptic zombie movie is indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids) and George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead), opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. It’s not long before the zombies awaken and pursue him at breakneck speeds through the streets of London. Yes, these monsters travel fast (they’re a cross between athletic football players and drug fiends). A marvel of economic storytelling, 28 Days Later follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that swept the country, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. They take a 3-day trip to Manchester in the hope of finding an army base that promises rescue, and each stop along the way is fraught with peril. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts.
28 Days Later works well on its own merits. The long silences between bursts of violence allow for empathy for the film’s characters (always reliable Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is particularly touching as a teddy bear father-figure). Like all good horror films, when one of the heroes is struck down it actually means something. Choice villains are found in the infected, as well as the rational sociopath running the military operation out of Manchester (Christopher Eccleston). If 28 Days Later has one major fault, it’s the use of digital video. Certain action sequences morph into abstract blurs where it’s near impossible to tell what’s happening. Boyle also runs into the same problem that hurt Romero’s Day of the Dead, where the army base becomes a source of easy conflict as piggish soldiers lose their discipline as society collapses. Still, these problems are relatively minor considering the hard-driving intensity of 28 Days Later. The Rage virus feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who has struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey.