Due to having often been on the wrong end of the food chain back in prehistoric days, humans have an instinctual reflex to avoid being eaten. That hasn't escaped the notice of novelists and filmmakers who've scared the pants off readers and viewers by having all sorts of animals (think "Jaws") or monsters (such as in "Alien") hunting down their human prey.
Most violent deaths in more "civilized" times were and continue to be more along the lines of human on human attacks. Thus, those employed in the business of scaring customers turned to vampires, boogeymen (including masked serial killers) and the old standby, zombies, to evoke the same reaction.
Director Danny Boyle ("The Beach," "Trainspotting") uses a variation of the latter in "28 Days Later," a stylish but decidedly low-budget and ultimately disappointing effort. To begin with, I should point out that this isn't a sequel to the 2000 Sandra Bullock film, "28 Days." Although it may have been fun to see Miss Congeniality as a zombie or being chased by them, the film has nothing to do with her or the potent cocktail of the same name.
As written by Alex Garland (novelist of "The Beach"), the effort starts off promisingly enough as a research chimp - force-fed images of violence like Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange" - goes berserk and attacks some people. 28 days later, our protagonist -- Cillian Murphy ("On the Edge," "Disco Pigs") - wakes up in a deserted hospital in an apparently deserted or decimated London and Great Britain.
It's akin to Eduardo Noriega and Tom Cruise doing something similar in "Open Your Eyes" and "Vanilla Sky" respectively, but this dream turns out to be a true nightmare. After discovering that the majority of the leftover humans are infected with some sort of virus that's driving them mad and has them in permanent attack mode, our dazed hero and a few other survivors try to avoid the rabid, zombie-like creatures and make their way to a sanctuary of sorts that may or may not exist.
Notwithstanding the introductory chimp angle, this would seem to be a standard, run and hide zombie flick (although the walking dead are really just the walking infected). There are various problems, though, that prevent the effort from being as good (as a zombie film can be) as it might have been.
Let's start with the lack of details and explanations. Being left in the dark is a good introductory gambit, at least for a while, in getting the viewer into the proper frame of mind. Even so, things should eventually be explained to some degree to introduce credibility and avoid repetition-based staleness from setting in.
Beyond that introductory scene and a comment about the chimp being infected with rage, we know next to nothing about the presumed virus or what has happened to most everyone in Great Britain. Did most of them flee or is there some sort of zombie convention in another city that everyone's attending? And why do the infected - like all zombies - seem to have it out for those unlike them? Are they jealous or are the zombie union recruitment rules that stringent?
Then there's the question of how this virus works and why it can infect someone in a mere twenty seconds. By introducing that short infection range, Boyle and company pretty much throw out a major suspense element that they had in hand. While the sudden transformation adds another sense of urgency to the proceedings, it eliminates the suspenseful question of who might become the next zombie as well as when that will occur.
Without having the survivors going into proactive mode of trying to figure out their attackers' modus operandi and/or a way to defeat them, the filmmakers also reduce their ability to get the viewer engaged as fully as possible in the characters' quest for survival.
What we're left with is a run of the mill, run from the zombie flick that we've seen countless times before from the likes of "Night of the Living Dead" up through "Resident Evil." It doesn't help matters that Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Julien Donkey-Boy," "It's All About Love") have shot the film on an apparently low-end digital camera (or messed around with a good one to make the results look bad). I suppose that was to give the effort an additional raw feel, but it only ends up making the picture look cheap.
To make matters worse, their method of inducing thrills and chills (when the zombies attack) is by apparently increasing the shutter speed, zipping the camera to and fro and using lots of quick edits. While that does keep the viewer from seeing what's occurring in full, I found very little of it to be spooky, let alone outright scary (those with low tolerance levels for such zombie material may react otherwise).
The final and perhaps greatest collection of flaws is that we don't care about any of the characters or the order in which they'll presumably be killed and the zombies simply aren't that interesting or imaginative of a menacing presence.
Murphy, along with the likes of Naomie Harris ("The Sobering," "Living in Hope"), Brendan Gleeson ("Gangs of New York," "The General"), Megan Burns ("Liam") or Christopher Eccleston ("The Others," "Jude") simply don't have enough substantial material with which to work to make us worry about their safety.
Although some may read all sorts of sociopolitical context within the main flick (particularly when considering the early research scenes, later military ones and the recent outbreak of SARS), I think that's giving the film a bit too much credit. Despite an intriguing beginning and a handful of decently staged scenes here and there, the film ultimately goes nowhere as it simply retreads familiar material without doing anything imaginative, remarkable or memorable with it. "28 Days Later" rates as just a 4 out of 10.