Very scary movie

28 Days Later

Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes out of a coma to find that civilization has collapsed in <i>28 Days Later</i>.

Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes out of a coma to find that civilization has collapsed in 28 Days Later.

Rated 4.0

Every gasp, shock and stomach heave of director Danny Boyle’s new movie 28 Days Later comes, paradoxically, with a warm glow of nostalgia. Ever since the focus of humanity’s nuclear fears shifted from mutually assured destruction to briefcase bombs, filmmakers have all but abandoned the doomsday-nightmare genre—the kind of movie where a nuclear war, an invasion from outer space or a catastrophic plague wipes out most of the human race, leaving a handful of survivors to stroll through abandoned supermarkets clearing the shelves of what they need to cope with the breakdown of the social order. Until 28 Days Later came along, I didn’t realize how much I missed movies like Panic in the Year Zero!, No Blade of Grass, Night of the Living Dead and The Day of the Triffids.

The script of 28 Days Later is by Alex Garland, and it’s his first. Garland’s novel The Beach was filmed by Boyle in 2000 (with Leonardo DiCaprio), and it’s easy to imagine Boyle and Garland lounging around between takes on that island in Indonesia, or wherever they were shooting, and clucking their tongues at the thought of having to return to “civilization.” A little what-if woolgathering, and presto, three years later, the two of them have put their heads together and come up with this.

Boyle and Garland give us the setup in a prologue set in a dark, sinister laboratory. Chimpanzees in their cages shriek and bounce off the clear acrylic walls; one of them sits strapped in a chair bristling with electrodes. When a band of animal-rights activists breaks into the lab intent on “rescuing” the chimps, one of the workers tries to stop them: “You fools, you don’t know what you’re doing!” He begs them not to release the animals; they’ve been “infected.” “Infected with what?” Pause. “Rage.”

Apparently so. No sooner do the activists open one of the plastic cages than the ungrateful beast inside leaps on the nearest one and rips her throat out.

We don’t know what happens next, but from what we see, it’s not hard to guess. Twenty-eight days later, our hero Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes out of a coma in a London hospital to find the hospital—in fact, the whole city—deserted. It is only when he meets up with Selena (Naomie Harris) that he learns why: The rage in those chimps was a virus carried in the saliva that acts in seconds. If an infected person attacks, they’ll either kill you or turn you into a murderous beast just like them. It seems to be all over the world, Selena says, but with no radio or TV, there’s no way to be sure.

Soon they find two more survivors, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). When a faint radio broadcast beckons them north to Manchester for “the answer to infection,” they set out to find the colony of survivors, little suspecting that they’re going from the frying pan into the fire.

In a sharp contrast to the lush tropical vistas of The Beach, 28 Days Later is shot on high-definition video (the cinematographer is Anthony Dod Mantle). That grainy, pinkish, cold look may be the wave of the future for independent filmmakers, but it’s pretty flat and ugly. In this case, though, the ugliness works for the film rather than against it; it gives the movie an adrenaline charge that intensifies the relentless barrage of images with which Boyle bombards us and which keep us off balance so the holes in Garland’s plot don’t occur to us until long after the film is over.

That kind of sleight of hand is essential to a movie like 28 Days Later, where the filmmaker taps into inchoate and irrational fears in the audience. The basic premise—civilization collapsing almost overnight, with those who die being the lucky ones—is so awful to contemplate that we’ll grasp at any excuse to laugh it off. Garland’s script is taut and gritty, but it’s not airtight; if Boyle gave us time to think, he’d lose us. Instead, he scares us out of our wits. The paradox is that being this deeply and truly scared is a real pleasure—if only because it feels so good when it stops.