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28 Days Later

  28 days later
Cillian Murphy checks out Big Ben, Parliament and bloodthirsty zombies.

© 2003, FoxSearchLight
All Rights Reserved

First of all, let's clear something up. The only thing that Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" (IMDb listing) has in common with "Omega Man" is a post-apocalyptic setting peopled with dangerous creatures. It's not based on the novel "I am Legend" (believe it or not, "Omega Man" is), it doesn't star Charlton Heston, and it's really, really good.

"28" is a top-notch-ish piece of filmmaking, in fact. It's scary when the plot is served by being scary. It's sentimental but never saccharine. And, just as important, its 112-minute duration is justified (it's my long-held conviction that any film over 90 minutes has to justify its duration). Oh, and another thing: the zombies in "28" don't lumber, which has been a bit of a credibility problem in some zombie movies. Here they give chase.

I thought I was going to dislike the cheap, fuzzy look of the film at first, but it grew on me, and I started to see it as an apt means of representing an empty England. What ended up bothering me a little was the scarcity of rules for the infected monsters of "28." Part of the fun of a monster movie is watching how cleverly the filmmakers are able to operate within the limitations of certain unbreakable laws (even if those laws are invented by the writer). The stake has to go through the heart of the vampire, the bullet used to dispatch the werewolf must be cast of silver, etc. Selena (Naomie Harris), the heroine of "28," informs us that it's advisable to kill a newly infected person within 15 or 20 seconds of infection, but not much is ever done with this piece of news—other than to show, in one of the film's bloodiest scenes, Selena's impressive adherence to her own recommendation.

Where "28" exceeded all of my expectations was in its heavy reliance on character; its ability to create the same kind of endgame quest vibe found in the miniseries "The Stand," but with a much smaller budget and far less time on its hands; and the foxy use of a split plot structure a la "Full Metal Jacket." The first part of the film takes place in London, but a military installation in Manchester becomes a sacred destination for our hero, Jim (Cillian Murphy), and his band of pilgrims—especially Frank (Brendan Gleeson), the first to have learned of the installation's whereabouts in a recorded broadcast he's been picking up on his wind-up survival radio. Frank and his daughter team up with Jim and Selena in one of the film's most believable and well-reasoned moments, and the pilgrimage ensues. It's hard not to marvel at a relatively small-scale film like "28" that's able to induce the same kind of feelings one gets watching an expensive epic like "Lord of the Rings," but that's exactly what "28" delivers.

The ending is an unexpectedly violent affair, but we shouldn't be completely unprepared for Jim's devolution to an animal state. The film opens in a primate research facility at Cambridge, where a chimpanzee is strapped in front of several television screens, forced to witness all manner of human violence—apparently without pause, since we're seeing this after hours and the screens are still beaming their grizzly images at the helpless animal (yes, another Stanley Kubrick film comes to mind here). Soon after, we see Jim in a hospital bed, naked from head to toe, assuming a similar position to that of the chimp in the research lab. Even the shape of his beard carries a hint of the simian. It's a nicely executed visual comparison, and it leaves us wondering when and how the significance of the connection will be demonstrated. We're not disappointed.

My guess is that some controversy will arise as to whether or not "28" is actually a horror film. It is, of course. It's got monsters, it's scary (beware the church where Jim encounters the first of many zombies to come!) and there's (hopefully) an air of improbability to it all. But it's also a sort of love story, and there's a philosophical strain that isn't usually found in modern horror films, to be sure. The major in charge of the military compound (Christopher Eccleston) posits that in some ways there's nothing abnormal about the plague that has all but wiped out jolly old England. His experience as a career military man has been that people kill people, plain and simple. That, he observes, is all that's going on with the infected who still linger here and there. When encountered, they are summarily executed. He's right, on a philosophical level, perhaps. But practically speaking, things are very different in the world of "28" than they were before the Cambridge chimps were liberated from their cages and allowed to spread their lab-created infection to homo sapiens. Daily life has become a nightmare for all but the most military-minded. Even the major's men are beginning to crack.

There's an original "Twilight Zone" episode called "Two." It stars Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, and no one else. It's a simple story of love's persistence even in the aftermath of a global holocaust. That's where the heart of "28" is. Unfortunately, if most of us take love's tremendous stores of power for granted, it follows that we put too little stock in the darkness that constantly threatens to slip into our civilized existence and devour us whole. That, too, is where the heart of "28" is.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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