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Cinema Signal:

The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide

. "28 Days Later"

What it is: "Reign of Fire" meets "The Return of the Living Dead." What it isn't: a sequel to "28 Days" starring Sandra Bullock. What we get is a horror flick with considerable character development within an apocalyptic vision on a shoe-string budget from the Brits. Director Danny Boyle, to be exact, who brought us "Trainspotting" (1996), "A Life Less Ordinary" and a couple of episodes of the BBC's "Inspector Morse" (1987).

His opening sequence explains the rest. A band of marauding animal-rights do-gooders gain entrance to an English research facility and set loose caged monkeys exhibiting freaky behavior, while ignoring the warning of one of the scientists that the angry chimps have been infected with a new virus called "rage." A release of it would be a threat to mankind. One bite from one of these critters turns you into one of the "infected" who is then driven by a rabid need to attack anyone not infected. Fittingly, the first to fall victim is the self-styled rescuer who opens the first cage. See it. Enjoy it.

28 days later... the process has rendered cities devastated, streets empty, life ended. But not entirely. The infected lurk in hidden places. The occasional survivor pops up unexpectedly. Like poor Jim (Cillian Murphy) who, after an accident on his delivery bike that put him in a coma, wakes up in a hospital with life-support tubes tied into his arms. But why is there no one around?

After fending off his first attack by an "infected", he traipses through the deserted streets of London. He enters a church filled with dead bodies and arouses a few not so dead who lurch with rage toward him. He runs until he's rescued by a tough and terrified Selena (fetching Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) who clue him in to what discipline it takes to survive.

They discover an apartment building with one set of windows flashing lights. Their attempt to check it for survivors brings on more infecteds who take Mark, but Jim and Selena are rescued by Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). When they hear a radio broadcast inviting them to a military unit based in Manchester, they take off hoping to escape the gauntlet of rage.

In "The Return of the Living Dead" (not one the Romero pics) a released chemical turned men into zombies who then had to eat brains to relieve their pain. Here, the compulsion to bite is a simpler mechanism. But, as in that earlier horror film, which differs from this in that it had a clever comedic tone, characters are well enough drawn to lock you into their chilling struggle to maintain life free from the infection and thereby rescue the planet.

The video medium in which it was recorded imparts a lack of detail to Anthony Dod Mantle's otherwise fine and appropriately scary low-key lighting that well supports Mark Tildesley's production design. Original music for the thriller is by John Murphy and the eminent Brian Eno ("Traffic", "Moulin Rouge"The derivative screenplay is a first for Alex Garland.

In this genre, where new concepts are hard to come by, much rests on strong plotting, well defined and engaging characters, and a skilled cast. "28 Days Later" scores quite well on all these counts, setting a higher level of class and giving it a chance to stand out.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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