“28 Days” is a touching, uplifting story about a young woman’s struggle with alcoholism that stars Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen.
“28 Days Later” is not that movie.
Director Danny Boyle’s new film, which raked in a surprising $10 million in its first weekend at the box office, is a gory, scary and surprisingly original zombie thriller that knocks the pants off of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “The Hulk” and the rest of this summer’s tired sequels and would-be blockbusters. It also is the first splatter-fest in years to serve up a convincing, albeit unconventional, love story.
“We tried to take certain elements in the genre and sort of move them on,” explains screenwriter Alex Garland. “That was one of our instincts originally, to update this type of film.”
The premise has been tried before, as in the bloated Stephen King miniseries “The Stand” (1994), for example, but the low-budget “28 Days Later,” shot for less than $14 million, provides several novel scares in its depiction of an engineered virus that decimates the world’s population.
The survivors left to fend off “the infected” try to love and run as fast as they can, but they can’t keep pace with their pursuers. There’s no zombie foot-dragging here: These superspreaders move at a fever clip, appearing out of nowhere to tear off an arm or pass along their bloodlust.
“You can’t seriously have your zombies, if you can call them that, walking around Frankenstein-style going ‘uhhh-uhhhhhhh’ any more,” explains Mr. Boyle, whose previous films “The Beach,” “Trainspotting” and “Shallow Grave” were acclaimed for their visual style and edgy content. “That’s not going to be scary. A person could just walk away from them. But if they’re coming at you with the speed of an athlete, then that’s something to worry about.”
Jim (Cillian Murphy) and Selena (Naomie Harris) have to be fairly inventive when it comes to staying alive because, unlike in “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) or the vastly inferior “Resident Evil,” caches of firearms are not readily available. “There just aren’t that many guns in the U.K.,” says the film’s producer, Andrew Macdonald. “And it’s something we’ve always shied away from even as far back as ‘Shallow Grave.’ I think it’s much harder to have to hit somebody with a bat or a knife.”
The creepiest part, of course, is that the story could be pulled from tomorrow’s headlines. Just as SARS fears subsided, doctors in mid-June reported human cases of monkeypox — a disease that causes a gruesome rash of pus-filled blisters — that is believed to be spread by imported prairie dogs. “The film is just a ratcheting up of a general paranoia that seems to be floating around at the moment,” says Mr. Garland, who also wrote the novel “The Beach.”
“It brings up many of the sorts of questions people are asking themselves,” he continues, “such as, ‘Who can we trust?’ ‘Are we safe?’ and ‘What is out there?’”
The film’s hemorrhagic “rage” virus inspires even the most mild-mannered colleague to homicidal frenzy, leaving friends and close relatives constantly on edge. “It’s an easy premise to accept,” Mr. Boyle continues. “We’ve all had those moments where we’ve thought, ‘I want to tear that guy apart,’ and the film shows what it would be like if you were trapped inside that feeling forever.”
Although “28 Days Later” also could be a timely metaphor for genetically modified foods, weaponized anthrax, West Nile virus or the human genome project and the ripples of panic each inspired, filming actually took place in the fall of 2001.
“We were originally inspired by mad cow disease,” Mr. Boyle explains. “At the time, nobody knew if the government was telling the truth, and several countries began banning [British] meat. Then all of this was immediately followed by a huge outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease where sheep and all sorts of livestock had to be culled all over the U.K. They killed millions of animals and burned them in huge channels dug in the earth. The skies were full of smoke from these burning corpses, and when you traveled through the countryside, there was nothing moving in the fields. It was just empty.”
London appears similarly depopulated in a jaw-dropping opening sequence. Jim, believing he is the last person on Earth, stumbles upon a huge wall of missing-persons fliers that is easily the most affecting image in any modern horror film.
“That was another SARS-like coincidence, because we got that from photographs taken after an earthquake in Beijing,” Mr. Garland says. “It’s just something that people do all over the world when there is a catastrophe of a certain scale and communication by normal means has broken down. After September 11th, we had a long debate about leaving it in, but ultimately we decided it felt right.”
Amidst the bloodcurdling screams and 112 minutes of mayhem, “28 Days Later” also slips in an abundance of dry wit, but not in the broad manner of spoofs such as “Scary Movie” or the sneering “Scream” series that inspired it.
“We didn’t want to be ironic like many horror films these days,” Mr. Boyle says. “Once you start nodding and winking to the audience, you’re basically telling them, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK.’”