28 Days Later’ offers more than brainless zombies

Eric Hoyt

Zombies eat brains, but the best zombie movies have never lacked them — consider the critique of American consumerism in “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). And though Danny Boyle’s new zombie movie “28 Days Later” isn’t as good as George A. Romero’s masterpiece, it offers an intelligent commentary on society and humanity.

The movie opens when a group of animal rights activists free a disease-carrying monkey from its laboratory cage, unknowingly releasing a lethal infection called “rage” across England.

Four weeks later Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma. A series of striking shots show him walking through a deserted, post-apocalyptic London, the muted colors contributing to the overall sense of ruin and decay.

But Jim isn’t really alone. Soon he is attacked by a group of ravenous, red-eyed zombies — the “infected.” But these are not the slow, clumsy zombies of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). Boyle’s zombies are fast and vicious — exactly what one expects from the flashy director of “Trainspotting” (arguably another movie about zombies). The attacks are brilliantly staged, shot and edited, forcing viewers to imagine the horror by withholding visual information.

After Jim survives his first zombie encounter he finds allies, joining Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns).

Through the characters’ interaction, “28 Days Later” imagines the new dynamics that could emerge in a world without traditional societal ties.

When the group sets off by car after receiving a radio broadcast from a military outpost near Manchester, a tedious pattern of highway montage, talky scene, zombie attack emerges making it feel like a series of music videos. Fortunately, the pacing, focus and eeriness return when the group reaches the outpost, but a frightening scenario emerges when they realize they are not protected but rather held prisoner by the combat unit, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston).

Here the film’s central ideological question surfaces: What will the new social power system be after this is all over? Though the interactions between Jim and friends portend a progressive future, West and his soldiers offer a return to a rigid, patriarchal, authoritarian state.

Delving deeper, the film asks what being human means. Bloody and shirtless, Jim resembles a zombie during the climactic battle and it seems all that separates him from an “infected” is his ability to plan a violent act prior to committing it.

The ending feels disappointingly cheerful, but horror movies often have happy endings — think of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931). And for all we know, the zombies could still be out there. Even scarier, so could the Major Wests.