Much of the horror makes it to the screen in garbled form in “28 Days Later,” a faux-low-budget zombie pic by director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) and writer Alex Garland (“The Beach”) that shows a rather arrogant disdain for its audience in between occasional flashes of flair. Grungy, downbeat, DV-originated movie about the last few survivors of a virus outbreak in Blighty should initially infect a healthy swathe of victims on release in the U.K. Nov. 1, but thereafter Fox will need to maintain its heavy promo to prevent a rapid fall-off as word-of-mouth inoculates the curious.
Central idea is an unabashed genre item, distilled from a long line of previous works, from Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend” to George Romero’s no-budget classic “Night of the Living Dead” and the more recent “Resident Evil” computer games. Garland and Boyle’s extra twists are (a) to set the story in London and central England, (b) to make the virus unleash human rage rather than cause a disease, and (c)…uh, that’s about it.
While (a) provides the opportunity for fun with deserted London landmarks — plus a few jokes that only natives of the city will get — (b) is more problematic. Not only is there a serious shortage of info in the script about the virus’ m.o. but the zombies don’t behave differently from zombies in any other horror pic (i.e. pissed and murderous), except that here they run rather than lumber.
It’s one of many examples in the film that highlight the recurring problem of poorly worked scripts in pics by U.K. Lotto-backed DNA Films (“Beautiful Creatures,” “Heartlands”). One has only to compare rival Working Title’s genre outings — “Long Time Dead” and “My Little Eye,” both of which seem at least well thought through — to see the difference.
Few of the weaknesses, however, are apparent in the movie’s first half-hour, which starts mysteriously (sans any credits) and builds to a lovely visual surprise in a top-secret Primate Research Center, somewhere in Britain. Animal rights activists break into the lab and, amid the chaos and medical gobbledygook, an enraged chimp breaks loose and makes spaghetti bolognese out of one of the do-gooders.
Twenty-eight days later, a naked man wakes in a hospital room to find he could be the only person left in London. With Dogme vet Anthony Dod Mantle’s lensing of orange-fingered dawn in the city, there’s an eerily beautiful stillness to the scenes of Jim (Cillian Murphy) walking through the streets, where amid the trash lie newspapers proclaiming “Evacuation” in their old headlines. Subsequent entry of low-level music on the soundtrack, however, is a misjudgment, breaking the special mood.
Jim stumbles on a church where he gets his first taste of being chased by bloodthirsty zombies. Amid rapid editing, he’s rescued by two tough warriors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), who fill him in on what happened and rules of survival. Seems Paris and New York may also be out for the count, and it’s only safe to move around during daytime.
Jim insists on visiting his parents’ house, where, to “Abide With Me” on the soundtrack — the first of several effective uses of devotional music — Jim confirms he is very much alone. During another sudden attack by crazed zombies, Mark gets bitten, so Selena immediately hacks off his head with her machete. “Staying alive is as good as it gets,” she growls to an appropriately shell-shocked Jim.
So far, so good, but by the fourth reel Garland’s script starts coughing blood. After hooking up with fellow survivors Frank (Brendan Gleeson, in colorful form) and his teen daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), the foursome sets off northward in Frank’s black cab, to a spot northeast of Manchester where a dim radio broadcast promises military help. Following a journey through idyllic countryside, the group reaches the source of the broadcasts — a bunch of unruly soldiers commanded by Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) in an abandoned stately manor. Here, it’s not just the packs of roaming zombies that Jim & Co. have to worry about.
With its “shuttered” editing for the zombies’ attacks, the film delivers enough shocks and gore to please undiscriminating auds. But they’re hooked to a screenplay which has no idea how to develop its characters in interesting ways and doesn’t provide enough background to involve the viewer at any level beyond the superficial.
The most likable character, Gleeson’s cabby, unfortunately inhabits only the middle stretch; thereafter, it’s left to a decidedly lesser bunch of thesps — Murphy, bland as Jim; Harris, not fulfilling her initially strong promise as Selena; and Burns, amateurish as Hannah — to carry auds’ interest through the final military seg. Hampered by lame dialogue, which becomes especially embarrassing in a dinner-table discussion of humankind’s propensity for violence, Eccleston is only OK as the somewhat demented major, and his troupe of renegade grunts make little individual impression.
Unlike their previous collaboration on the lively TV movies “Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise” and “Strumpet,” Boyle and d.p. Dod Mantle (“Festen”) build no real case for shooting digitally rather than on 35mm (aside from contrasting with the upbeat coda, actually shot on film). Apart from the central rural seg, pic’s look is grim, the only relief from the dystopian grunge being the heavy rainfall brought in as visual texture for the finale.
Other technical credits are detailed, from the detritus of mass evacuation to Rachael Fleming’s lived-in costumes and the f/x team’s gore effects.