To every creatively frozen, summer-movie ice age comes a little heat lightning, and these gray dog days it’s Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. On one hand a seat-o’-pants digital-video quickie designed for blunt trauma, and on the other a veritable index of classic genre-stuff, Boyle’s film creates an acute sense of movie-viewing danger. You’re never sure that what you’ll see will be completely safe and blockbustery. Because it’s cut-rate, star-free (supporting players Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston are as close to marquee names as it gets), outlandishly edge-conscious, and 100 percent British, the movie has a frontier charge built in. It’s no landmark—it’s too derivative and, finally, tasteful—but unassuming ticket buyers may be spot-welded to their seats with an unfamiliar intensity.
Screenwriter Alex Garland literally drops in the name of the film as an intertitle following a disastrous animal lab liberation in which eco-activists release virally infected chimps into the world. Four weeks later, naked nobody Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital to find London an empty maze of post-apocalyptic silence, wreckage, and broodingly useless landmarks. It doesn’t take long for him to stumble upon a dozing mob of the “infected”—essentially, George Romero-style cannibal zombies, distinguished by their red contact lenses, body-snatcher screech, and rigor-mortis-free speed—or to be rescued by Mark and Selena (Noah Huntley and the redoubtable Naomie Harris), a pair of no-nonsense vigilante humans brimming with exposition.
England, it seems, has been wholly evacuated; exactly how far beyond its shores the plague spread is a matter of conflicting rumor. It hardly matters—the scenario quickly boils down to Dawn of the Dead hack-or-be-chomped. The jittery social collapse in Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s first Dead film, is conveniently hopscotched, but even so, that seminal nightmare’s upcoming teen re-remake is now rendered altogether moot. Returning after the H-bomb crater of The Beach to an ultra-cheap guerrilla moviemaking he’d never actually experienced, Boyle allows the digital fuzz to despoil powerful post-apocalyptic tableaux, as if the film itself were news footage, and offers up only fleeting glimpses of historically suggestive imagery (an inert Payloader full of gray bodies is a mere reflection in a passing car window). He also overemploys the ubiquitous Saving Private Ryan shutter-strobe effect during action scenes, using its eye-upsetting tumult to economically disguise the fact that very little of the flesh-rending and limb-hacking is actually on-screen. (This technique is also forgiving to drooling zombie actors.) The subjective approximation of a hysterical, head-shaking frenzy, it’s a presumptuous strategy that gets under your skin anyway.
It’s a shame Boyle and Garland took only what was easy in Romero (the ecstasy of shopping in an unpoliced world, the unambiguous joy of mowing down subhumans) and didn’t dig for metaphoric frisson. Romero had Vietnam and post-industrial consumerism; what do Boyle and Garland have? The threat of instant infection—Gleeson’s jovial dad meets a decidedly outrageous fate, seen from the inside of a falling drop of blood—only evokes itself. Pick your virus. There’s nothing as transgressive in 28 Days Later as the Night of the Living Dead moment in which a newly resurrected child zombie eviscerates and cannibalizes her own mother, or, for that matter, Night‘s final evocation of mid-century Alabama. Garland’s script has the kernel of an idea in the third act, when the survivors find Eccleston’s army brigade holed up in a country mansion, ready to restart the human race. As in Romero’s severely underrated The Crazies, the dread of military enforcement outweighs the fear of what it’s meant to control. For Naomie Harris’s wary, fierce machete-maiden, the prospect of being a jarhead concubine and gunpoint baby factory makes the landscape of man-eaters look reasonable.
At the Walter Reade’s UCLA-curated martial arts series, everything is symbol—or nothing at all. As it evolved from literature and fable, the martial arts movie is the world’s only action genre predicated on “spiritual” attainment. Even the newbie fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which caps off the retro, can’t help noticing the odd, lovely, childish central contradiction between Taoist-Buddhist cognitive discipline and the use of its resulting levels of enlightenment for greed, vengeance, and whup-ass. Hong Kong wuxia pian characters can run up walls and leap over roofs—they’ve transcended the tangible, but they’re still ripping each other to pieces. It’s as if the entire national genre is a sprawling metaphor for the violent idiocy of the mature human race, superior to all it surveys and yet fatally vulnerable to its own petty instincts.
The oldest films—Red Heroine (1929) and The Swordswoman of Huangjiang (1930)—are both chapters in huge silent serials, and their charmingly primitive cinematic syntax echoes Hollywood serials made maybe a decade earlier. Still, it was the cultural synchronicity that stunned me: Unlike language and art, international movies were even then a standardized media, an Esperanto of motion and lantern light. (Red Heroine had one flourish worthy of a German expressionist: superimposed exclamatory subtitles spasming out of a hollering mouth in close-up.)
Otherwise, the movies on view are epitomized by the 1960s-’70s Shaw Brothers epic, shot in widescreen ShawScope and somewhat cheesily constructed with the uniformity of Steve Reeves Hercules epics. The fighting isn’t on a par with what we’re used to, and forget the wicked humor and torrential fantasy of the Tsui-inflected 1980s-’90s new wave. In the trad HK actioner, the past is a static platform for never-ending feudal wars and warrior one-upmanship. Following in the footsteps of the serials, King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966) and Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) place fabulous, invincible princess-warriors at center stage; the latter is a dyke pas de deux that, when it opts for acrobatic battle over softcore intrigue, moves so fast you barely notice the spray of blood on the wall.
Moral objectivity is the mode’s ruling guideline, so codes of honor and loyalty are routinely violated. Zhang Che’s zoom-amok Blood Brothers (1973) and John Woo’s uproariously lead-footed Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) both hinge on the personal desolation created by betrayal, but neither as maniacally as Chu’s Killer Clans (1976), whose story unfurls sequential conspiracies of bloodlust and revenge so deep-dish that the eponymous “societies” unknowingly harbor sleeper assassins “going back three generations!” Intensely melodramatic, Chu’s crowning trope is the royal court face-off, in which multiple cross-currents of eye contact gradually reveal secret alliances and missions.
The original UCLA program ended with Lau Kar-leung’s Return to the 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1980); the Walter Reade has tossed in Crouching Tiger and, as a kind of antidote, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994). Not exhibited nearly enough in this city, Wong’s masterfully moony desert ballade, smearing its own action scenes into a gauzy semi-consciousness, gives the whole genre a self-reflexive kidney beating that it never fully recovered from. And it has Brigitte Lin.
“Unchained Malady: With ’28 Days Later,’ Danny Boyle and Alex Garland Step Into the Hot Zone” by Dennis Lim