Not Nearly Departed 

Chillingly smart, “28 Days Later” revives the zombie flick.

Shot in inexpensive digital video by experimental cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the movie’s imagery is enhanced by an edgy score and staccato editing. Especially the latter, which features a technique that removes frames for a jittery, ramped-up visual effect that mirrors our own visceral response. Boyle, Garland and Mantle craftily re-engineer the corny, flesh-eating horror flick into a darkly satirical, tangentially political reflection of modern disease scares. An incredibly and ironically well-timed one at that, considering the world’s recent SARS panic.

Through the eyes of injured bicycle messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy), who’s just come out of a coma in a deserted hospital, it seems as if he’s the only man alive. Stumbling down one street after another — his footsteps’ hollow echoes underscoring his “aloneness” — only frightened pigeons offer any response to Jim’s plaintive cries of “Hello.”

But Jim is not alone. Not by a long shot.

You see, while Jim was comatose, a band of well-meaning but misguided animal-rights activists attempted to set free a handful of quarantined monkeys. Little did they know the primates were carriers of a virus so powerful that even the briefest contact induces gory, gut-wrenching heaves that quickly mutate into a fierce, mindless cannibalistic hunger. During the struggle between activists and scientists, the monkey cages were opened and the virus released. Now — 28 days later — Jim is about to be discovered by what’s left of London’s zombiefied, starving-for-human-flesh population.

Escaping the clutches of a terrifying swarm of fast-moving, sullen-eyed zombies with the help of two other still-human survivors, Jim finds out his family is dead and that all of England has been infected. “The day before the TV stopped broadcasting,” the reluctantly but coldly fatalistic Selena (Naomie Harris) tells him, “there were reports of infection in Paris and New York.”

A glimmer of hope appears when Jim encounters father and daughter (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) survivors, and the group flees London in Gleeson’s taxi, tracking a weak radio signal from a military unit in the countryside. On its airwaves, a desperate offer of help: “You must find us! Salvation is here! The answer to infection is here!”

Boyle’s brusque, economic, video-witness style direction coupled with the contrasting, on-edge performances serves to create more suspense and tension between characters than the (largely unseen) hungry hoards. Which goes a long way in bridging gaps of logic in “28 Days’” plot. (I mean really, why haven’t any of the survivors bothered to loot any guns or short-wave radios to see if the rest of the world is still on the air?)

As the gauntly handsome and staunchly humane Jim, Murphy effectively portrays the losing battle to find a sane foothold in the gruesome new world his character awakes to. Harris’s gradual softening as the callous, pretty Selena works as a subtle manifestation of the young woman’s burgeoning optimism. And Gleeson provides a much-needed everyman’s touch, as a father whose only concern is his daughter’s survival. Adding to the fright is Christopher Eccelston’s unsettling performance as the borderline despot behind that radio signal of salvation.

Although some moviegoers will lose patience with Boyle’s slightly blurred images, most will find “28 Days Later” a scary, satisfying horror flick that breathes new life into the overworked, overwrought cliche of the living dead. **** S


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