(R) 3 1/2 starsEd Johnson-Ott

The theatrical trailers for 28 Days Later looked awful. The voice-over spoke of plague as the screen displayed images of desolation. With SARS a global concern, this didn't sound appealing at all. Suddenly, something bloody and vicious bolted out of nowhere and the narrator started talking about zombies. Now this sounded more encouraging - we haven't had a good zombie movie in years - but then the voice-over added that the film was by Danny Boyle, director of The Beach. Were I Danny Boyle, I wouldn't use that credit on my calling card.

Thankfully, the movie triumphs over its lousy trailer. 28 Days Later is a dandy zombie flick; nothing revolutionary, mind you, just a rock solid entry in the genre. With ace visuals by director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, the film is shot on digital video, providing a gritty look that is perfect for post-apocalyptic fun and games. Nicely selected and placed song snippets, chosen by John Murphy, add to the creepy atmosphere.

As with The Beach, the story takes a sudden turn a little past the halfway point, but this time Boyle knows just what he's doing. The journey had to go somewhere and the direction selected is serviceable enough. It even allows the filmmakers the opportunity for a little social commentary. I won't reveal their message, suffice to say it's unpretentious and, sadly, probably correct.

There is little character development in 28 Days Later. Instead, the people stay in the moment, which is appropriate. The cast is good, particularly female lead Naomie Harris, who projects an air of casual elegance even in the roughest scenes. Male lead Cillian Murphy gives a performance that is straightforward without becoming stoic. (The filmmakers are clearly taken with the athletic young man by the way. The first image of him is an overhead full frontal nude shot. Later, his ass is displayed in the showers and he dashes about shirtless in several scenes. Harris, meanwhile, only gets stripped to her underwear.)

As for the zombies - er, the infected - they are suitably bloody (the digital video mutes the gross-out factor somewhat, although one scene of a creature vomiting a bucket full of blood may send a few viewers to the exits) and much more alert and fast moving than one might expect.

The story begins with a group of animal rights activists breaking into a research facility, where they find caged chimps facing television monitors filled with violent images. Despite the pleas of a terrified researcher who claims the animals are infected, they begin to free the chimps. The resultant attack is not pretty.

Cut to a hospital, where cycle courier Jim (Murphy) wakes up in a deserted intensive care ward. The groggy young man wanders the halls of the building but finds no one. Leaving the hospital, he discovers that the sidewalks and streets of London are also empty. He seeks shelter at a church, only to find heaps of dead bodies. Suddenly, there is sound and movement - only his quick reflexes prevent Jim from being assaulted.

Back on the streets, others begin to pursue him. A bomb explodes, and Jim is saved by Selena (Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). After reaching safety, they lay out the nightmarish truth. The plague hit fast and hard. Any contact with the blood of the infected will turn you into a homicidal maniac within seconds. The plague has taken Britain and, as far as they know, the rest of the world as well.

Later, an investigation of a light in a high-rise reveals more survivors, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The group picks up a recorded radio broadcast stating that a Manchester-based group of soldiers, led by Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), has the answer to the plague and is inviting all survivors to join them at their headquarters.

The survivors take off, unaware that the worst is yet to come.

28 Days Later may not be the scariest zombie film I've seen (Night of the Living Dead remains the winner), but it is a satisfying entry in the genre. Consistently unsettling, with characters you care about and creatures you fear, this nasty little affair delivers.


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