Sunday, December 17, 2006

28 days later (2002)

The Story: In the United Kingdom, a plague that causes inhuman rage in its victims is accidentally released, and quickly spreads...

The new film from "Trainspotting" Director Danny Boyle, who's last two Hollywood films fell well short of expectations, is not only a return to his native country and a smaller budget, but also a return to form.

The bombastic prologue shows a group of animal rights activists setting free a group of chimps being used in a mysterious experiment. Little do they know that the chimps have been infected with 'The Rage', a disease that causes blind, psychotic anger. A disease that's carried in their saliva and blood, and is almost instantaneous in its infection. The first chimp released bites one of the activists, turning her into a red eyed, blood-spewing creature that attacks the others.

28 days later (thus the movies clever title) we shift to a man, named Jim, waking up in a London hospital after being in a coma. He, like the viewer, discovers that the whole city seems to be deserted. All the power is off and signs of destruction and violence are widespread. Coming upon a church, he is suddenly attacked by a group of 'The Infected'. Humans now gone completely insane, reduced to slavering, murderous throwbacks by 'The Rage'. He is rescued by a young black woman named Selena, and a man named Mark.

They tell him the terrible story about how people suddenly became violent, terribly, unstoppably violent. How this violence spread, how those that were not butchered were infected, and how, just before civilization was brought to its knees, reports had got out of attacks in other countries.

When they meet up with Frank and his daughter Hannah, they all decide to leave London and head north to the city of Manchester because Frank has been picking up recorded radio broadcasts from the military. The voice, from a Major West, declares there is safety there and a solution to the plague. But, even if they manage to escape London, what will they find waiting for them...

Shot on digital video, this is about as far away from the gloss of his Hollywood films, that Boyle could get. It's a movie as bleak and desolate looking as the actual events it's portraying and he's obviously reveling in the chance to leave big studio compromise behind.

The digital format will be familiar to those who have watched works such as TV's "Band of Brothers". It captures details in a grainy, yet coldly clinical style. It picks up, much like a strobe light does, every drop of rain, or eruption of dirt, and of course eruption of blood, perfectly. And Boyle, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, uses it to lethal effect in the attack sequences of 'The Infected'. The fast editing, shaky picture and tight framing add a raw brutality to the spasmodic violence that's been not seen on mainstream screens for many years. This is most shockingly visualized in a machete attack by Selena, as she hacks up an 'Infected' in a ferocity born out of desperation. The sickening noises of the blade in flesh, the screams of the 'Infected' and the gruesome spectacle of every blood drop being shown to us via the digital process, creates an extreme, jolting sequence of hyper-kinetic butchery.

The 'Infected' themselves, although of course not undead, are obviously a zombie based creation. But here, like in Lenzi's, in some ways similar, "Nightmare City", they are fast moving and almost unstoppable due to their sheer psychotic savagery. They simply don't stop coming after you (even while on fire, in one striking sequence) because the urge to kill swamps every other emotion, even self-survival. They are a truly terrifying creature, and are so good that when they are not on screen the film seems to drag. They literally rip the film into life.

The effects vary from the highly impressive, to the cheap and unconvincing. The shots of the deserted London are suitably doom laden and it's obvious that a lot of digital tweaking (as well as Boyle and his crew, who did not have permission to close any streets down, waiting for cars and people to move out of shot before filming) has gone into making some very clever and effective sights. But some of the visual work fails, like the poor shot of electricity generating windmills poking up above a roadway, and it's obvious that the budget was tight.

The make up effects however, although simple, are more than satisfying. The work on the numerous corpses, the faces of 'The Infected' and the bone crunching, blood spattered deaths (a head smashing effect is shockingly realized) is first rate. Cliff Wallace who's worked on everything from "Hellraiser" to "Black Hawk Down", especially given the obvious budget constraints, has done a superlative job.

And it's due to this budget constraint that we are sometimes left frustrated at how so much more could have been done. The cast is small, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but so are the numbers of 'Infected' on screen at any one time. This somehow takes away from the scale of the catastrophe. We hear from Major West that the countryside is infested, yet we never see more than five or six of 'The Infected' in a single sequence. If only some of the budget blown on Boyle's "The Beach" had been given to "28 Days Later", we could very well have had a movie on a real apocalyptic scale.

Mentioning "The Beach" also brings us to that novels author Alex Garland, who did the screenplay, and it's here we have the movies second failing. The dialogue, although nicely done in the explanation scenes, is overly simplistic and cliche. People speak like they do in pulp comics, melodramatic and somehow false. The military characters are the worse, with the British soldiers being nothing more than your typical foul-mouthed grunts. The clever use of dialogue in the recent "Dog Soldiers" was fast and hip, but still built characters, here it most definitely does not. The plot, though containing the striking 'Infected' creations, is also derivative.

It borrows ideas from "The Omega Man", "Day of the Dead", "The Crazies" and even the aforementioned "Nightmare City" (though we can say it's probably coincidence on the Lenzi film). This mixture works, but does not give anything truly ground breaking. And if the conclusion is somehow less than what we were expecting (though there is in fact nothing wrong with it) there are at least enough twists in the main body of the film to keep audiences interest.

The acting is also a metaphor for the movies schizophrenic relationship with success and failure. Whereas Murphy, Harris and Gleeson do some great work, especially Cillian Murphy who makes Jim a satisfyingly realistic character and is outstanding in the ultra violent finale, the rest of the cast varies from melodramatic simplicity (Eccleston and the actors portraying the soldiers) to the damagingly bad (Burns, who nearly sinks the film in her important scenes).

Despite these failings though, the aforementioned edge of the seat action scenes, brutal violence, excellent make up effects, muscular direction, impressive lead performance and an enveloping sense of desolation, make for an ultimately satisfying movie that, along with "Dog Soldiers" and the World War One set "Deathwatch", bodes well for British based horror film production.

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