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28 Days Later

Why is it that post-apocalypse films are so oddly, delectably appealing? Like the horror genre's frank promise of unspeakable terror, we know going in to a post-apocalypse film that we'll be presented with a world that's utterly bleak, and fundamentally unlike our own. All of those we love are dead. Society has lost thousands of years of progress, resorting to the brutality of mob rule. Communities disappear, replaced by hunter/gatherer bands of human scavengers. For writers, the appeal of the post-apocalypse milieu is simple enough — the lack of known rules allows them to make up their own. But for viewers, the appeal is not dissimilar — the sudden collapse of everything offers survivors a cathartic fantasy release from the humdrum and routine. Very few people can afford to buy a clean slate on their own terms, but a sudden, catastrophic war or plague at least means you no longer have to worry about your nagging mom, your credit card debt, or where to find affordable, quality orthodonture for your kids. Now it's just you, your wits, your weapons, and any rag-tag survivors who are able to keep up with you. Action films are a natural fit for the genre, in particular The Road Warrior and Escape from New York. Not that high-minded, literary types aren't interested in the end of the world as well — William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which strands a group of English schoolboys on a tropical island after a wartime airlift, has been filmed twice, while Planet of the Apes, The Quiet Earth, and On the Beach are similar cautionary tales. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) may have been marketed as a zombie-flick, but it's actually another strong entry into this genre — a genre that often suggests that the end of time as we know it is closer than we suspect. After an initial sequence during which militant animal-rights activists free a group of chimpanzees from a research lab, Boyle's film leaps forward four weeks, where London bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) finds himself in an abandoned hospital. He remembers that he had been struck by a vehicle and suffered a head injury, but beyond that he has no idea what to make of the deserted wards. London itself presents a larger puzzle — it's entirely empty, save for evidence that it was struck by an incomprehensible panic. But before long, Jim realizes he's not alone; visiting a local church, he's nearly killed by a homicidal band of crazies, only to be rescued by two survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who explain to him that they must hide from the "infected," and that the whole of Great Britain has been decimated. Before long, they take refuge with London cab driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), after which a looped radio broadcast convinces them they must take the dangerous journey from London to Manchester, where a group of British soldiers led by Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) claim they have the answer to infection, and the only offer of salvation.

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As a moviegoing experience and nothing more, 28 Days Later is a thoroughly entertaining blend of horror, science fiction, and adventure, never straying outside the boundaries of any genre to completely upturn expectations, but also moving so deftly between them that anyone hoping for just a "zombie movie" or an "end of the world" screed are bound to be disappointed. Boyle's popcorn-muncher starts out with his small group of survivors in an urban wasteland, turns that into a road movie, and then cleverly takes up horror films (and their predilection for haunted houses) for the final act. It is within this big-screen entertainment that the script (by Alex Garland) subtly offers a Promethean warning about diseases, research, and medicine all gone awry. Perhaps that's not so easy to take seriously with your Friday-night entertainment, but 28 Days Later arrived not long after most of Great Britain's livestock was culled after a rapid outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, in addition to the global fear of SARS, which had southeast Asia on alert for several months. If Boyle was hoping to create a verité appeal, he certainly chose the right filming process — abandoning celluloid for the versatility of DV may have cost him some resolution, but he was free to play with a wider range of color schemes and grain effects. (In fact, were it not for the digital cameras, many of the stunning shots of an abandoned London and its surrounding motorways would never have happened — local authorities cooperated thanks to the film crew's ability to set up and shoot on a moment's notice.) Casting a group of largely unknown actors in the leading roles makes the experience that much more authentic, and while veterans Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston give the film some of its richest dramatic moments, newcomers Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris shoulder the bulk of the picture with natural charisma, and surprising warmth. Fox's DVD release of 28 Days Later features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Supplements include an informative commentary from director Boyle and scenarist Garland, six deleted scenes with commentary, three alternate endings with commentary (including a "radical" alternate ending in storyboards), the documentary "Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days" (24 min), collections of on-set photos and Polariods with commentary from Boyle, and a "Marketing" section with trailers, Web materials, and a music video. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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