'28 Days Later': A Horror to Sit Through

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 27, 2003

Blood spurts, gushes, drips, sprays and otherwise runs thick in "28 Days Later," a 21st-century version of the zombie movies of the 1960s. Viewers who idolize directors such as George Romero and the lesser-known Dario Argento may find merit in Danny Boyle's contemporized take on those directors' films. Here, Boyle exploits the salient late-20th-century theme of contagion to reimagine modern England as a post-apocalyptic necropolis. It's "The Last Man on Earth" meets Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," with the shaky video-cam of "The Blair Witch Project" thrown in for heightened -- and particularly ugly -- realism.

"28 Days Later" opens with a chimpanzee watching a bank of TV screens on which a series of violent images plays out. Obviously the subject of some kind of test, the chimp is hooked up to a monitoring device until a group of masked activists enters the lab to free the animals. Once the beasts are liberated, however, the context becomes clear: They've been injected with a highly contagious virus that produces murderous rage in all who become infected. Within 28 days, England has become a wasteland haunted by angry red-eyed ghouls, one drop of whose blood can infect a healthy person and turn him into a red-eyed ghoul.

It's into this benighted world that Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in a trashed and deserted hospital, having been in a long coma. He makes his way across a similarly empty London to a church, where he meets Selena (Naomie Harris), who is also uninfected. Together Jim and Selena try to survive while tracking down other survivors, and soon they are joined by a cheerful taxi driver named Frank (Brendan Gleason) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Hearing a radio message promising safety, the hardy band makes its way in Frank's cab to North England, where the survivors are threatened not just by roving sanguinary fiends but by their own putative saviors.

Fans of the zombie genre have already greeted "28 Days Later" with glee on Internet sites, extolling the film for its near-constant assault of blood, gore and morbid action. But Boyle -- whose first two films were the promising "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" -- has made a movie for a very narrow slice of the movie-going public. Unrelentingly grim, unremittingly gross and unforgivably unattractive, "28 Days Later" is an orgy of troubling images and bestial sound effects: Before they pounce, the haggard, corpselike infectors make the gagging sounds of feral pigs. The most unfortunate instance in a seemingly endless stream of disgusting action is the image of a black man chained to a wall, his eyes bloodshot, his mouth trickling blood, bellowing with homicidal fury.

If it's regrettable that Boyle would turn his prodigious talents to making such a disposable movie, it's incomprehensible that he would choose to make it on digital video, resulting in images that are bereft of tonal range, detail or beauty. Blown up to 35mm film, "28 Days Later" is vexed by an irritating pixilated effect; it often looks as if it had been photographed through a mosquito net. Presumably, Boyle chose the format for considerations of budget and realism, and early shots of deserted London streets are admittedly haunting, but ultimately the trade-off wasn't worth it. The characters and activity onscreen are gruesome enough without the added insult of substandard production values.

What's most objectionable about "28 Days Later" is the opportunity it squanders to be a social, even political allegory on par with such forebears as "Dawn of the Dead" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." In the age of SARS, monkeypox and sleeper cells, it's easy to imagine Boyle making at least some metaphorical hay; instead, his cardinal point seems to be that anger is bad for people and other living things. "28 Days Later" is detestable, not just because its action is so vile or its technique so crude, but because its moral imagination is so impoverished.

28 Days Later (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence and gore, language and nudity.

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