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Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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In the spirit of plucky, independently produced horror films, 28 Days is shot on video with only one name-brand actor (Brendan Gleeson in a supporting role). With the money saved, the producers bought two things: empty London streets and a big Internet marketing campaign.

Was the budget set low to prove a point? Was it a way of shunning the big-budget disasters that plagued Danny Boyle leading up to this movie (The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary)? If so, it seems to have worked. Though the ending is a little too upbeat and conventional (call it science fiction instead of horror), 28 Days Later is a tight little horror movie, well written and well observed.

The Quiet Earth

A deserted London makes 28 Days creepy and interesting
A deserted London makes 28 Days creepy and interesting

Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital, and everyone is gone. The room is a mess. There are no nurses, no doctors, and no other patients. He checks the rest of the hospital and, aside from a broken-open Coke machine, finds no evidence of recent activity. He goes outside and walks down the street: no people, no cars, just an abandoned and deserted London.

Seeing the empty streets of London is spooky, and it looks as though Boyle actually shot it that way. It doesn’t look like a special effect, which made me even more surprised that Boyle didn’t shoot on film, because it’s not every day that you get to empty out the city of London. Then again, maybe it was a special effect after all, made easier to fake by the medium of digital video.

Dawn of the Dead

Jim eventually finds some other people. In fact, he’s rescued by two friends, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim had been exploring a church when a red-eyed, crazed-looking man (a priest judging by his clothes) starts madly chasing him. More people pour out of the church, joining the chase, all red-eyed, some looking a little decomposed. That’s when Selena and Mark appear with Molotov cocktails, driving off the zombie-like people.

The three settle into a little shop inside a mall (a nod to Dawn of the Dead, no doubt), where Mark and Selena explain the situation. Humanity has been infected by a virus. Once bitten, you’ve got about twenty seconds before you get the blood lust. You can survive all but the most severe of wounds, but you are single-minded in your desire for human blood.

What Would You Do?

With the premise firmly in place, the movie turns its eye to how people react. The electricity is gone. Fresh water is mostly gone. The Infected roam the streets by night. What do you do?

Selena and Jim find a man and daughter (Gleeson and Megan Burns) still alive and uninfected. Father has a hand-cranked radio, and plays for Jim and Selena the broadcast he’s been getting from up North. A male voice says the army has survived, and invites all listeners to come to a roadblock northeast of Manchester to find redemption from the virus.

There is much debate about whether to go. The message is a recording and hasn’t changed in a few days, and the trip might be more risky than staying in London. But curiosity and the need for companionship win out, and they decide they must go... but first a little shopping at the grocery store (thank goodness for irradiated fruit).

The last act finds our traveling survivors the guests of eight soldiers who haven’t seen a woman in a month. The soldiers plan to rape the two females, Selena and Hannah plan to avoid being raped, Jim tries to save the women, and everyone tries to avoid the zombies.

To B or Not to B

The screenplay is a cut above your standard B-grade horror film. Its concept is two parts zombie movie, one part vampire movie. It’s derivative, but it’s also original in that the Infected are not actually undead. They have no supernatural powers. They require nourishment, as do all humans, and without it they (reportedly) can die of starvation. Inviting science instead of voodoo into the script (and tapping into SARS and West Nile fears to boot) is a subtle but pleasant twist on the genre.

The best thing about the movie is its attention to detail. Little observations, like Hannah’s fish tank or the irradiated apples, make the situation more believable, without taking up any screen time.

The videography is not bad, but it is more functional than impressive. Scenes are staged and photographed like a regular movie, not the handheld, real-time Blair Witch style. And yet there is something disappointing about seeing a movie shot on video. Tickets cost the same price as movies with big budgets and sweeping cinematography, and somehow that feels wrong. The halo of “sharpening” around the edges of the people on-screen is a constant reminder that somewhere, someone was cutting corners. Boyle could have used High Definition cameras and made the same movie look much better.

And in spite of the richly detailed script, the movie lacks real bite. At the end, with almost no exceptions, the good guys are alive and the bad guys are dead. In a low-budget horror movie, that’s a real shame.

Then again, 28 Days Later isn’t a true-spirited low budget horror film. It’s a studio-backed experiment made by a man who has spent 50 million dollars and directed Leonardo DiCaprio. That works both for and against the movie. It has the polish of a bigger-budgeted production but lacks the edge and angst of a truly B-grade horror film.