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28 DAYS LATER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Ecclestone, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Huntley
Director:  Danny Boyle
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  October 21, 2003

REPENT – THE END IS EXTREMELY F**KING NIGH

Film ***1/2

28 Days Later is an unsettling apocalyptic vision that unfairly yet brilliantly plays on fears spawned from everyday headlines.  In a time when biological weapons are a stark reality, infectious diseases strike, spread and scare entire populations, and the threat of terrorism means the end could come so quickly we don’t even have time to recognize it, director Danny Boyle weaves them all like sinister threads in a tapestry that bypasses our base perceptions and goes straight for what has become our most instinctual fears.

It starts with a tremendous bang, as animal rights activists break into a science lab where chimps have been caged, wired, and forced to watch horrific images on video monitors.  One lab worker screams in terror for them not to release the animals; they’ve been infected with “rage”.  The activists don’t listen.  One cage is opened, and a horrific scene of violence unfolds at breakneck speeds as the horror of the disease spreads like dominos falling.  Then the ominous title screen:  “28 days later…”

It’s there where we meet Jim (Murphy), who awakens in a hospital room after an accident and finds…nothing.  The hospital is abandoned.  The phones don’t work.  In a sequence of some of the most impressive images of the year, he wanders through London, shouting for anybody who can hear him.  There is no one…the city is quiet and deserted.

He has his first encounter with what has happened in a church, which leads him to two survivors.  Selena (Harris) has stayed alive by being ruthless, while Mark (Huntley) is the one who brings Jim (and us) up to date (“I have some bad news…”).  That lab virus spread through the population and virtually eradicated it in just four weeks.  Contact with the blood of one of the ‘creatures’ means certain infection; when it happens, you have only 20 seconds tops before the victim succumbs to murderous rage himself.

They eventually meet up with another pair of survivors:  Frank (Gleeson) and his young daughter Hannah (Burns), who have picked up a repeating Army radio signal directing them to a blockade on the other side of Manchester.  It’s a long, dangerous trek, and it may be all for naught, but they have to take the chance.  This leads to some great scenes that both develop the characters some and also work on our already frayed nerves.  One bit involving a dark tunnel will have you nearly at wit’s end.

This is a film with plenty of opportunity to surprise, and it doesn’t disappoint.  This is a world where death could come from any place or around any corner, and when it comes, it’s furiously fast and relentless.  Characters we like may not be spared.  Even when they find the shelter they’ve been seeking, it comes with a harsh twist, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.

This is probably the darkest and most pessimistic vision of human eradication since George Romero’s Day of the Dead.  In fact, fans of the Dead trilogy will find homage to all three films here and there in Boyle’s offering.  Not to say that 28 Days Later is unoriginal…far from it.  But Romero laid a strong foundation for the so-called “zombie” movie that has stood the test of the time and many inferior films.  Boyle’s works because he successfully crafts his own mythology to go along with the basic formulas.

This movie also became the first film to carry an alternate ending while still in theatrical release; which supposedly came about because the film had a different finale in its original British run than what was shown to American audiences.  That alternate ending (along with two others; more on those further down) is here, but I have to say, I have a bit of a problem with both endings.  The American theatrical ending is a little optimistic, which is merciful but seems like a misstep given the starkness of the vision that unfolded before it.  The other ending is more appropriately down, but not quite worthy of the hype played up for it when it came to theatres.  Seeing both endings on the same strip of film inspires an unsavory ambiguous reaction…which do you take with you since both cannot have happened?

I think I would have preferred the grimmer ending, which kind of kicks us when we’re already down and leaves us with a sense of hopelessness.  Danny Boyle himself remarked that such an ending seemed cruel, and maybe so…but it was right.

That being said, 28 Days Later is still effective and disquieting.  Boyle’s cinematic style, which involves using video instead of film for a grittier, more documentary-like feel, along with his terrific camerawork, kinetic editing interwoven into long, contemplative shots, and his sense of staging and use of framing all add intensity and drama to what is already good horror.  He creates a nightmare of epic proportions, but it’s seen as though through a microscope; focusing in on a tiny batch of protagonists and letting the script, the settings and our imagination fill in the breadth of the scope.

The film also works because we’re now in an age where we can’t quite dismiss these events as implausible, unlike the way we could when watching Romero’s dead come back to life.  Danny Boyle uses our own paranoia against us.  It would seem like a cheap shot if it wasn’t for the fact that his movie is so superbly crafted.  But because it is, it’s haunting, disturbing, and ultimately unforgettable.

Video ***

This is a terrific anamorphic transfer from Fox…the video source material makes it deliberately a little grittier, but DVD renders a better picture for it than the theatrical release did.  There is grit, but it isn’t as murky…in fact, I noticed a lot more detail with this disc on my small screen than I did on the big one at the movies.  Some of the darker scenes are a little more grainy, and colors tend to be a tad muted, but again, that all goes back to the choice of stock.  High marks still.

Audio ****

This is an intensely dynamic audio track with scenes ranging from dead silent to explosively loud.  The music, which is often so well integrated that you’re not really paying attention to it, gets the benefit of surround orchestration, and the action scenes fly at you from all directions with discreet audio tracks that are very well mixed and balanced.  Dialogue is clean and clear.  This is a 5.1 tracks that really pumps up the experience of the movie.

Features ****

An impressive special edition release from Fox, this disc boasts the aforementioned three alternate endings for starters.  The alternate theatrical one shows you what you would have seen past the end credits if you stayed at the theatre.  The second alternate one was never transferred from video to film, and is essentially the first ending taken a step further.  The “radical” ending actually re-routes the story with no army presence…it’s in storyboard form, with voices provided by Danny Boyle and producer Andrew MacDonald, who also provide optional commentary for the other endings.

Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland united for a feature commentary, which is generally interesting, but sometimes sparse, falling quiet for small sections at a time.  A making-of featurette is better, but also a bit of a downer, because it starts off detailing the reality of our world of infectious deadly diseases.  There are also 6 delete scenes with optional commentary, a Jacknife Lee music video, animated storyboards, galleries and a theatrical and teaser trailer.

Summary: 

2003 has been a very good year for horror fans, from the highly anticipated match-up of Freddy vs. Jason to the Rob Zombie debut House of 1000 Corpses to the smart and effective May.  But 28 Days Later looms largest because of its box office success and critical and popular acclaim.  This is a stunning and potent scarefest that takes the ‘zombie’ flick into some uncharted waters.  Disc and movie are both enthusiastically recommended.