28 Days Later ( R)
Remember when Smurf Village came down with a virus that found its victims turning purple, barking "Gnap" and biting their blue brethren on the butts?
I'm not making this up.
Critics have likened Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later to Night of the Living Dead, but all I could think of were those poor purple Smurfs.
Whatever the source of inspiration, Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) has crafted a film that peddles in suggestive terror and raw gore to invoke our reawakened dread of global annihilation.
The story is set in England where a cell of animal rights zealots have liberated chimps infected with a "rage" virus, the result, it's implied, of exposure to televised human violence.
"28 Days Later" ... in a hospital bed, Jim (Cillian Murphy), a 20-something bike messenger, emerges naked and alone from a car accident coma.
A walking tour of a pin-drop empty London tells him that things are not good. Cars are strewn in the barren streets; his increasingly desperate "hellos" are met only with echoes.
Jim is introduced to "the infected" at a church full of corpses. Here, a rabid, blood-barfing priest (homeboy makes Boston's Bernard Law look reasonable) tries to anoint him into the undead. Out of nowhere, Jim is rescued by plague survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley).
Selena offers Jim a sobering "while you were sleeping" memo: Travel alone only when necessary; if "the infected" bleed on you, we'll finish the job with machetes; and, by the way, everyone you know is dead.
Despite Boyle's crouching-tiger-hidden-zombie fights, the most horrifying moments in 28 Days come via the recollections of his characters. Mark recounts his family's attempt to bribe their way onto a plane. "30,000 people had the same idea," he recalls in a harrowing description of a mobbed airport carpeted with trampled people.
After Mark gets infected (and promptly bludgeoned by Selena) she and Jim find their way to a tower flat where Frank (Brendan Gleeson) is holed up with his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). For want of water and the inevitability of more attacks, the makeshift family decides to flee north where a radio transmission has proclaimed that salvation lies outside Manchester.
The four depart in Frank's taxi, but not without lapsing -- as only the cast of a horror film can -- into unconscionable stupidity: driving through a darkened tunnel instead of above-ground streets, wandering through an abandoned roadside house, etc. ...
What's refreshing about Boyle's apocalypse is that its horrors are matched with beauty: the quiet of deserted highways, abandoned bucolic estates, and the glee of free shopping.
The fun ends outside Manchester where Frank is infected and then shot by a squad of soldiers. They're too calm to trust leader Henry (Christopher Eccleston), who strikes a Col. Kurtz pose with his burden of leadership. Jim, Selena and freshly orphaned Hannah are taken into a fortress that's well fortified with electricity, food and guns galore.
Only it turns out the Queen's army is little more than a savage testosterone cult -- AFA anyone? The radio broadcasts, Jim learns, were born of Henry's desire to appease his men with ... women (and not for milk and cookies). The three quickly realize they're better off fending for themselves than becoming a military pleasure installation.
It's nice to see a sci-fi horror film that's not bogged down in the ponderous exploration of imagined technologies. 28 Days deals with a question more profound than any gadgetry. Namely, What if the end of the world is merely the dawn of another? It's hardly the type of thing one wants to pitch to modern-day apocalypse survivors in Rwanda or Bosnia, but it's substantive brain candy during a season of Happy Meal schlockbusters.