28 Days Later (review)

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All the Rage

There was this great TV commercial for British Airways a few years back, in which a guy wakes up in the morning, and the bed is empty beside him, and the streets of London are empty, and offices and shops are deserted, and he runs around the abandoned city looking for someone, anyone, and finally he yells, “Where is everybody?!,” his desperate voice echoing through the uninhabited streets. The idea was that hey, airfares are so cheap, everyone took off for somewhere else.

It was amusing but also kinda creepy, in that peculiarly British way. Why was that one guy left behind? Why would his wife just take off and leave like that, without even leaving a note or anything? Is it a joke? Shh, don’t tell Nigel, won’t he be surprised?

It was creepy, yeah, but it had nothing on what Danny Boyle does with the idea. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital bed. He’s got a nasty, fresh scar on the shaved side of his head, and he’s scrawny like he hasn’t eaten in a while. There’s no one around, and the hospital’s a mess, like it’s been vandalized. He’s been in a coma, and while he’s slept, the world has gone to hell.

Jim wanders around London in a kind of daze, shuffling pitifully in too-big hospital scrubs and hauling a few meager salvaged belongings in a plastic bag. Clearly, some sort of disaster has befallen the city — cars are abandoned and overturned, and the quiet is downright eerie — but Where is everybody? Where is every body? That may be, oddly enough, the eeriest thing: There are no dead bodies, not at first glance, anyway, and so the general unthinkableness of apocalypse is compounded, and it’s like one of those bizarre nightmares where you’re roaming around a place you know but you don’t know. The movies have shown us what the end of the world is gonna look like, and this doesn’t look anything like it.

The Beach was pretty horrifying, but this is more like the flicks of Danny Boyle’s funny-gross roots — Trainspotting, the brilliant Shallow Grave — kinetic and mercurial, but harder, grittier… it’s humanistic and unsentimental, like some lost science fiction flick from the 70s that’s just been rediscovered. The laughs it evokes are bitter, knowing, and get more so with Jim’s introduction to this transformed world as he hooks up with survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley: The Mists of Avalon). It’s been a month — 28 days — since a terrifying virus has gotten loose from a research lab, and the very few uninfected like Selena and Mark and Jim band together to battle the superviolent infected, which is just about everyone, who’ve been transformed by the bug into unthinking killing machines.

The bug, we see in the prologue to Jim’s story, is called “rage,” apparently induced in monkeys through the tried-and-true Clockwork Orange method of propping monkey eyes open and forcing them to watch violent images on television, which are, tellingly, mostly of the news- and- current- events variety, not the fantasy Dukes of Hazzard variety. We infected the monkeys and they infected us right back, except we, clearly, were already infected, only now what lay dormant in most people is out in the open. And they, the infected, want to, in their mindless, animalistic way, to spread the joy, and they’re really, really hard to stop.

And then there’s the blood. The virus spreads through blood, and even the merest drop of the infected stuff is enough to do the trick, and there are volumes that could be written about this very of-the-moment fear of contaminated blood. Suffice to say that never has a horror movie taken the splattering of blood so seriously, or made it mean so much.

The most horrifying, most poignant, and most blackly comic aspect of 28 Days Later, though, is the depressing commentary on human nature. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that it would be the beginning of the end of the survivors’ troubles when they hook up with army major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston: 24 Hour Party People, The Others), who with his team of soldier boys keeps a nicely fortified base near Manchester and claims to have the “answer to infection”? But rage is rage, and humans are violent creatures, particularly when the veneer of civilization is removed, and there’s no cure or vaccine or “answer” to that, at least not that we’ve found yet.

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