- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

“Hulk” director Ang Lee would be wise to take in “28 Days Later” this weekend.

The new film is, essentially, a zombie-fest. Even an adapted comic book like “Hulk” occupies higher cultural ground than a living-dead opus.

Yet “28 Days Later” director Danny Boyle injects the material with both intelligence and a giddy sense of humor, the latter sorely missing in Mr. Lee’s ponderous film.

Mr. Boyle earned instant credibility with his 1996 film “Trainspotting” but took a few hits with 1997’s “A Life Less Ordinary” and 2000’s “The Beach.”

He reportedly shot “Days” for $6 million using digital video cameras. Talk about making a virtue of necessity: The digital filming paints the screen in raw, bleached-out tones that enhance the pervasive atmosphere of apocalyptic doom.

Some of the film’s plot elements, however, feel cherry-picked from other movies, chiefly George Romero’s trilogy of “Dead” films. Also, no matter how much polish Mr. Boyle applies, the results still are limited by their bloody excesses.

“Days” opens in a London animal testing laboratory under attack. A group of animal rights activists breaks in and frees caged monkeys being forced to watch taped scenes of human violence.

What the radicals unleash — along with the shrieking creatures — is an easily communicable virus. The creatures were infected with “rage,” we’re told, the only information supplied on the condition.

This isn’t a movie in which scientists hunker down to find a possible cure. The virus instantly spreads, killing nearly everyone.

Inexplicably, a few resist the virus.

Twenty-eight days later, we meet Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier left to fend for himself in an abandoned hospital. He awakens from a long sleep to find the building, and almost all of London, deserted.

Glimpses of a silent Big Ben and an abandoned Waterloo Bridge deepen our unease.

Jim soon finds a few other survivors, including Selena (Naomie Harris), whose no-nonsense approach belies her pain. Jim also discovers a bloodthirsty lot of infected humans who feast on healthy humans. These undead shun daylight, spit blood — a drop of which can cause infection — and move swiftly, unlike the plodding zombies in Mr. Romero’s splatter-fests.

Jim’s small group escapes a few clashes with the infected, then heads toward a radio signal being beamed from another part of town. The signal leads them to a small group of armed soldiers. If we learned anything from Iraq, it’s that you never know just who might be hiding behind those uniforms.

All the while, an eclectic soundtrack of haunting spirituals and rock instrumentals keeps us perpetually off balance.

“28 Days Later” tries on some bigger themes for size, such as man’s inhumanity to man in the face of great peril. Don’t let that deter you: The flick is dominated by graphically violent set pieces and the fear of the ravenous undead.

The zombies are shown only in quick, tantalizing glimpses, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Mr. Boyle escalates the tension without falling back on cheap scares or other horror-movie tricks. The zombie threat ebbs and flows, leaving us time to get to know the characters.

Our leads are worth knowing more about. The cast, fleshed out with unfamiliar faces, consists of far more than extras waiting to be devoured. They laugh, weep for their loved ones and settle their nerves by reaching out to one another for comfort. These scenes work almost as well as the scarier moments.

Screenwriter Alex Garland, who penned “The Beach” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio), based on his novel, has fashioned a script that’s far smarter than a horror film demands, even if it occasionally flounders in genre melodrama. It also keeps surprising us without sacrificing too much in the way of credibility.

Mr. Boyle does allow a few pat moments when uncivil audiences will cry, “Don’t go in there,” but more often he cleverly manipulates our emotions, which is no easy task in a genre grown so familiar.

One sequence, set in a tunnel teeming with rats, will leave viewers clutching their armrests.

The film also leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Is the virus global, or is it isolated in the Greater London area? Why did some humans resist the virus? And how long can the undead survive without feeding?

“28 Days Later” is a clumsy title for a film that provides more goose bumps than any horror film in recent memory.

@Byhead:MOVIES / CHRISTIAN TOTO

TITLE: “28 Days Later”

RATING: R (Excessive violence, frontal nudity, coarse language, alcohol use and stark imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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