28 Days Later (18)
Bright, intelligent British horror films are almost a thing of the past, one assumes, until one considers the two excellent movies that have graced our screens in 2002. The first was Dog Soldiers, pitting squaddies against werewolves. The second is 28 Days Later.
In essence this remarkably effective and frequently frightening picture is a cross between Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and George A. Romero’s cult zombie flicks, principally Dawn of the Dead.
Packed to the gills with nightmarish images from a contemporary urban landscape crossed with Hieronymous Bosch, 28 Days Later comes from the pen of Alex (The Beach) Garland, who has plundered the great apocalyptic shockers of print and celluloid to create a tremendous movie that both salutes its inspirations and overtakes them.
Garland’s story takes place in a deserted, devastated Britain ravaged by a plague virus unwittingly unleashed from a laboratory by animal rights extremists.
Four weeks later, the entire country has been overwhelmed. London has been evacuated save for scattered pockets of heavily armed survivors and hordes of people infected with an illness that leaves them in a state of perpetual, homicidal rage.
Into this highly dangerous world emerges Jim (Cillian Murphy), who awakes, alone, following a motorcycle crash, in a deserted hospital. Staggering out onto the eerily quiet, litter and corpse-strewn streets of London he narrowly avoids death in a wrecked church and is saved only by the intervention of machete-toting, ass-kicking chick Selena (Naomie Harris). Together they seek an escape route from the capital, heading towards the source of an army radio broadcast in the North. It will be a terrifying journey.
Directed with verve by Danny (Trainspotting) Boyle from Garland’s original screenplay, 28 Days Later takes British sci-fi/horror a quantum leap forward. Nothing like this has been seen since the gory, glory days of Hammer. What works most effectively is the casting of virtual unknowns – Murphy and Harris are joined by two familiar character actors in Brendan Gleeson, from Braveheart, and Christopher Ecclestone, from Cracker – and the outlandish, genre-busting notion of a deserted British Isles. It all comes down to four strangers running for their lives in a black cab.
That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. In truth no film would be complete without them. Yet the ones on display here – such as a solitary figure in the far distance when London’s streets should be empty – are negligible. Characters are sketched rather than fully inked, details are left vague about the fate of humanity. And that’s just how it should be.
Memorable moments in this dazzling slice of future shock include shots of ‘infecteds’ raging through the streets, a priest staggering like a zombie, his mad eyes a horrible gateway into a tortured soul, and rats fleeing through a road tunnel, running before Garland’s variation on the living dead.
Perhaps most chilling of all is the moment Eccleston’s off-kilter army officer reveals he keeps one of his own infected men on a short leash in order to find out how long victims take to starve to death.
This is a unique vision that belies its limited budget. It will rapidly become a cult movie and may yet spawn a sequel. Certainly, that’s the American way, and one that would work perfectly here. Just one request, Hollywood: no remakes please.