If you read Alex Garland's best-selling novel The Beach, you'll remember its jarring climax, which seemed like a cross between The Bacchae and Night of the Living Dead (1968). The book was set in a utopian collective on an island off the coast of Thailand, but in the face of external threats, internal tensions, and a whopping dose of hallucinogens, the wannabe utopians got carried away by their rage and transformed into something resembling flesh-gouging zombies. I wondered how the 2000 movie, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, would handle that kind over-the-top carnage, but the filmmakers punked out. John Hodge, Boyle's screenwriter, came up with something more like a high-school shunning, and the picture ended with a druggy whimper.
My guess is that Garland was bitterly disappointed by the new ending, because he turned around and wrote Danny Boyle a full-length flesh-gouging zombie movie called 28 Days Later (Fox Searchlight). The title is also an inter-title. Most of the film takes place four weeks after the prologue, in which a bunch of militaristic animal-rights activists break into a lab where scientists have infected monkeys with a virus of "pure rage." (The monkeys are watching footage of savage rioting, which I'd have predicted would discourage violence: That's what it does to Alex in A Clockwork Orange . If I wanted to drive monkeys into a murderous fury I'd show them tapes of, say, Nancy Grace.) Blaming animal-rights activists instead of overweening scientists for summoning up the mother of all plagues strikes me as rather unfair, but it's consistent with young Garland's view of the counterculture in TheBeach, in which communal idealism leads to fascistic arrogance leads to … flesh-gouging zombies. The upshot is a bummer of a scene, man.
It's also shocking, disorienting, ferociously intense. The protagonist, Jim (Cillian Murphy), is a bicycle messenger who was hit by a car a few months earlier and had the good luck to be in a coma when the rage virus hit the fan. He wakes up to find London eerily quiet and stacked with dead bodies, some of whom open their blood-soaked eyes and come after him. He's saved from a marauding zombie priest (presumably the one who scrawled on the wall of his church "The End is Extremely F---ing Nigh") by two other survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and the dishy Selena (Naomie Harris), who fill him in on what he slept through. Selena tries to give Jim a 10-cc dose of survivalism, demonstrating how to kill even someone you like if you suspect them of being infected, and reminding him that nice people can slow you down when you're trying to get away from zombies. Jim clings stubbornly to his humanism—but how will he respond with the ghouls nipping at his heels?
28 Days Later is like all three George A. Romero Dead movies packed into one: Its larky shopping scene recalls Dawn of the Dead (1978), and it ends in a military compound, where much of the messed-up Day of the Dead (1985) is set. The movie is derivative as hell, but it's also blazingly well-made, and it moves at a ferocious clip. So do its zombies. Unlike the loping Romero dead, the infected here are a barely glimpsed blur—which makes them terrifying in a different kind of way. When they're hacked up or shot, their blood spatters stroboscopically in shiny diamonds. And that blood is lethal: If it gets into your eye or mouth or a cut on your hand, then in 10 to 20 seconds you're a frothing, bloody-eyed zombie, too. In one scene, a tide of rats rushes toward the main characters: They're not bringing infection, they're running away from it. The most heartrending moments in the movie come when people we care about get sprayed with the blood of the infected: We see the look of anguish in their eyes before the rage arrives and turns them inside out.
Boyle's work here surprised me. It's less heartlessly show-offy than in Trainspotting (1996) and less dopily picture-postcard than in The Beach. The music by John Murphy is an eerie drone that kicks into acid rock when the zombies show up. And it looks like nothing you've ever seen. The movie was shot on video by Anthony Dod Mantle, who often works in the low-tech Danish film collective Dogma. He gives it a documentarylike fluidity but with the punchiness of a horror flick. The light from those low, overcast English skies is yellow-gray and weirdly diffused: You believe London's lone surviving cab driver, Frank (the endearingly blustery Brendan Gleeson), when he surveys the empty pots he has set out on the roof of his skyscraper and curses the sudden drought. It's a mad world, indeed, when the rain stops falling in England.
It would be wrong to reveal the thrust of the final act, set in a military compound presided over by Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). But I don't want to leave you with the impression that 28 Days Later is only about shooting and stabbing ghouls: It has a loftier theme. The true horror, it turns out, isn't the ragingly infected, but the coldly self-protective—the people who put their own welfare over the rights of others. The climax is what the end of the movie of The Beach should have been: funhouse-druggy, Grand Guignol, morally dizzying. Like the Romero Dead movies, this is finally the zombie flick as cautionary political tale, and as humanist parable. It's not the flesh-gouging zombie we have to worry about, the filmmakers suggest, but the soul-gouging zombie within.