Gradually, Jim pieces it together: A newspaper headline screams “EVACUATION”; a message board is papered with missing persons flyers. Eventually, he does find others, though they are raving mad and immediately attack him. He is rescued by a pair of survivors, who explain to him that, over the course of the past 28 days, a virus has devastated civilization. Spread by saliva or blood, it takes hold in seconds and infects its victim with murderous rage.
This idea is riveting, mind-bending, as the filmmakers assess just what would take place should such a thing occur. “What's the government doing about it?” Jim asks. “There is no government,” is the reply. “What do you mean? There's always a government!” With no such societal parameters in place, life has returned to the primitive, albeit in a post-apocalyptic setting.
Eventually the band of survivors, consisting of Jim, Selena (Naomie Harris), adolescent Hannah (Megan Burns) and her father Frank (Brendan Gleeson), tune in a recording from the military on a radio that indicates there is a safe haven at a road block outside of Manchester. They decide to make the cross-country trek, knowing full well that the outpost could already be overrun. It is on this journey that the group manages to find joy and beauty and humor even among the most dire circumstances, gunning their vehicle over a pileup, enjoying a free shopping spree at an empty supermarket and marveling at a herd of free-running horses.
When they arrive, to their relief, they find a heavily armed bunker and a handful of soldiers dedicated to protecting them. But it's there that they also discover that sometimes a human being doesn't have to be infected with the virus to act as if they are. It's also in this latter part of the film that the filmmakers explore their larger themes: For the commanding officer at the outpost, normalcy is people killing people, and so he sees little difference in pre- and post-epidemic. And how does one hold on to hope when the human race seems futureless?
“28 Days Later” is quite terrifying. The infected are characterized as fast-moving zombies with blood-red eyes and deteriorating flesh. Their images are shot close-up, in fast-motion, and quickly edited. The film is horrifying as well, spiraling into the grotesque as it progresses, with some of the more stomach-turning acts of violence perpetuated by the uninfected on one another.
Which makes it all the more disturbing. And which, one posits, is the point. As evidenced by “The Beach” and now “28 Days Later,” extreme circumstances require extreme measures, and, in the filmmakers' worldview, sometimes human beings are incapable of salvaging civilization. And yet, ultimately, human beings also are capable of tapping into deep wells of hope.
Something that also should be noted here is the film's score by John Murphy. His deft use of music effectively builds tension and expresses sorrow but is also ironic, juxtaposing sweet melancholy with suspense and violence. Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns and Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Produced by Andrew Macdonald. A Fox Searchlight release. Horror. Not yet rated. Running time: 108 min