The horror genre has been overrun with slasher and campy wink-at-the-camera films. Even last year's surprise hit Jeepers Creepers was essentially a monster movie. 28 Days Later also treads familiar ground, mining George Romero's oeuvre and updating it for a new millenium. Refreshingly, the setting this time is London-- someplace we don't often see on screen unless Pierce Brosnan or Mike Meyers is involved.
In the opening teaser a group of activists breaks into a research lab to liberate chimps being experimented upon. Unknown to them, the chimps have been infected with "Rage", a deadly virus spread through blood and saliva which, 20 seconds after infection, turns you into a rampaging zombie. When the first chimp they release bites one of their faces off, things quickly go to hell in a handbasket. Let this be a lesson to any other research outfits playing God out there: if you're cooking up some lethal genetic soup, perhaps you should have more security than a mag-stripe access card. A series of security airlocks, perhaps? 'Round-the-clock armed guards? An underground bunker?
28 days later... Jim awakens from a traffic-accident-induced coma to discover the city is empty. Phone handsets dangle on their cords, trash billows like tumbleweeds, and we're treated to some wonderfully eerie shots of empty London streets as Jim tries to find out what's happened.
This set-up is handled terrifically, and the first act offers up a handful of genuine scares. I'm not an easy guy for horror films to "get"-- I don't jump easily. I jumped. The great thing about these zombies is that they're not shambling, rotting corpses. These are living, infected people who run and chase at full speed, and that makes them much creepier and scarier than the Dawn of the Dead crowd and lets the filmmaker pull off some marvelously effective quick-cut come-out-of-nowhere attack sequences. But I'd love to know why film zombies never seem to turn on each other. Here the Infected seem to have a sixth sense that lets them hone in on normal people, and we're not sure why. They don't eat them-- they just attack them, projectile vomit some blood, pass on the infection, and move on-- performance artists run amok. If the Infected are in some kind of mindless, virus-caused rage, I'd think they'd be far less discriminatory about who they take it out on. Now, if you're possessed by Satan or merged into an alien group mind, that's a completely different matter. And different movies.
28 Days Later takes a wrong turn in the third act, when the movie mostly leaves the zombies behind and focuses on a group of surviving soldiers Jim and his companions come across. Suddenly we leave the horror genre, morphing into an action film with Jim as Rambo-- or, if you prefer, John McLean-- as he tries to rescue his companions from soldiers who've spent a little too much time watching Apocalypse Now. I felt like I was watching two completely different movies, and I much preferred the first one.
I was left unsatisfied. The movie leaves unanswered some tantalizing questions about the fate of the world at large. We see only a fleeting glimpse of a newspaper headline. No news footage, no flashbacks, no filling in the holes. Having used the plague to set the stage for its story, the film is not interested in chasing after any of the more provocative questions it raises.