Watching "28 Days Later" is a bone-chilling experience, not unlike immersing a hand into frigid water and keeping it there, despite every instinct to the contrary. It's unpleasant stuff, told without winks or humor, and it's so perfectly pitched that you can't take your eyes off it, even if this sort of hard-edged horror isn't exactly your cup of Diet Coke. Filmed in gritty video and strangely off-key colors — the sunlight in a desolate London has a brown, sour tinge — it's an artful, haunting journey.
"28 Days Later" focuses on the metaphor of infection. In a brief, jolting prelude, a group of animal-rights activists invades a dark lab and frees the chimps imprisoned within. What follows is an extremely graphic illustration of the adage "no good deed goes unpunished," as it turns out that those chimps were infected with a deadly virus whose primary symptom is a murderous, permanent state of rage. Fast-forward 28 days, as a courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy, pale and corpselike) awakens from a coma and roams the deserted London streets, wondering what happened to the world.
Soon, he's teamed up with fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris), Mark (Noah Huntley), and father/daughter duo Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns, so good in Stephen Frears' "Liam"). Many of the infected are already dead; the others stagger around the city like wild-eyed zombies, searching for a target for their rage. And, just when "28 Days Later" teeters on the edge of becoming just another zombie movie, the focus shifts. A group of soldiers enters the mix, and the survivors must face something even more terrifying than monsters: men.
Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "The Beach") keeps the dark, despairing tone rock-solid throughout, and finds tiny moments of humanity. Selena, a tough-talking realist ("Staying alive's as good as it gets," she says), at one point grabs Jim for a sudden, passionless kiss; it's as if she desperately needed to touch somebody.
With the SARS epidemic contained (or maybe not), there's something either uncannily timely or tasteless about this film's release. No matter; its apocalyptic message is loud and clear — and grimly memorable.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com