Shooting on digital video with a back-to-basics budget of $10 million, “28 Days Later” resurrects the kind of zombie movie that flourished in the Cold War years, when Hollywood paralleled the real threats of godless communist expansionism and nuclear devastation with shrieking plotlines that mutated your friends and neighbors into rampaging drones hell-bent on destroying the world.
Mixing lo-fi elements of “Mad Max” with the trust-nobody paranoia of “Night of the Living Dead,” Boyle and Garland locate their story in a present-day English setting that stalks reality a little closely for comfort. Unlike the B-movies from which it borrows, “28 Days” springs a storyline on us that is only a slight remove from our real fears in a world already on edge from anthrax, SARS and monkey-pox scares. The film opens with a break-in by environmental activists at a research facility in Cambridge University. They plan to free a group of lab chimpanzees that spend their days chained in cages watching a parade of horrifically violent images on monitors. Instead of giving a grateful hug to their liberators and brewing them a cup of PG Tips tea when their cages are opened, the cuddly chimps tear their faces off. The animals have been injected with an experimental and highly contagious virus — any living creature infected by it is consumed immediately with psychotic rage. The rage virus spreads throughout Britain in the titular four-week period, leaving the entire island devastated. Only a few uninfected people remain alive and, banding together for safety, they soon become killers themselves to survive in the face of constant attacks by the hordes of undead.
The filmmakers’ work the limitations of the indie budget and camera technology to their advantage. Instead of spending a fortune on computer-generated panoramas of burning cities piled with corpses, a la “Terminator 2,” Boyle achieves a more powerful sense of creeping dread by having his main protagonist, Jim (Cillian Murphy), an Irish bicycle messenger, emerge from a four-week coma to wander alone through the streets of a post-viral central London devoid of human life. (The credits thank the authorities for “holding London back.”) And the digital camera, overly granular on middle-distance shots and pastoral scenery, and way too jittery when the action speeds up, is frighteningly effective when the bloodshot mobs rampage onto the screen like dementedly angry punters at a rave gone wrong.
Boyle shows deference to the rules and traditions of the horror genre: when the plot gives our heroes a brief respite from attack to sit comfortably in a safe zone with sweet music on the soundtrack, its a sure sign that another rabid onslaught is imminent, and whenever a pair of uninfected survivors shows up onscreen, we can identify immediately which actor is expendable. Closer in spirit to his earlier film “Shallow Grave” in his sly crafting of mistrust within a motley group that must hang together to survive, Boyle gets terrific performances out of his leads Naomie Harris, as a London pharmacist who teams up with Jim to search for fellow survivors, and Brendan Gleeson, as the affable cabbie who drives them. Cillian Murphy is outstanding as the gentle, passive messenger in whom a killing streak is unleashed as the scale of zombie attacks escalates and he fulfills the promise hinted at in earlier performances opposite Colm Meany in Goran Paskaljevic’s “How Harry Became a Tree” and opposite Elaine Cassidy in Kirstin Sheridan’s woefully underrated “Disco Pigs” two years ago. Still under 30, Murphy is an actor to watch, and if he could spice up his social life a bit and curse like a sailor at press junkets, he might just knock the ubiquitous Colin Farrell off the covers of a few magazines.