Danny Boyle's apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Days Later... unleashes a fatal virus known as "the Rage" on Britain's streets, wiping out most of the population immediately, while turning infected survivors into charred-skinned, red-eyed flesh eaters. Hero Jim (Cillian Murphy), a courier with cheekbones, wakes up from a coma to find the hospital he's in abandoned and the world outside just as eerily quiet. The opening twenty minutes - as Jim wonders through depopulated city streets lined with abandoned lottery tickets, useless currency and the fruits of ransacked shops - comprise the best use of the capital for horror purposes since An American Werewolf in London; Boyle, who subverted London's touristy red-bus reputation with that montage in the middle of Trainspotting, here offers Big Ben trinkets littering Westminster Bridge and a double-decker turned on its side in a powerless Whitehall. A few scattered survivors remain, notably Selina (Naomie Harris), all too aware of her status as one of the last women standing, but the group's nerves - frayed by relentless assaults from the infected - leave them just as prone to defeatist bickering.
This is the first British digital feature to top the UK box office, and I suspect its word-of-mouth success is due partly to the fact that the majority of its audience are unlikely to have seen a film that looks quite like this before. Though multiplex viewers and Dogme aficionados are two very different demographics, what both groups want from a film would appear to be fairly similar; if the Scandinavian movies used digital video as an index of edgy realism, there's no reason why more horror pictures shouldn't capitalise on the medium's pixellated ambiguity. (Strengthening this felicitous union between mainstream content and arthouse form, Boyle has enlisted Festen cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle to shoot the film.) Appropriately, a European lugubriousness is allowed to permeate every frame. After the recent My Little Eye, this is the second Brit-directed horror in a month to have a kind of perversely winning - and, one might have presumed, uncommercial - bleakness about it, operating far from the teen-slasher flashiness of I Know What You Did Last Summer and closer instead to such 1970s genre highpoints as Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. What we have here is a decidedly localised apocalypse.
As in My Little Eye, the situation quickly becomes so downbeat that any optimistic note proposed in Alex Garland's script will invariably seem less convincing than the gloom that has passed before it, but this is a nicely modulated piece that makes good use of familiar character actors (Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston) to bridge those stretches carried by relative unknowns, and which finds time for the odd chuckle (a trolley dash around an abandoned supermarket, reminding you of Boyle's unexpected deployment of Dale Winton in Trainspotting) or spiritual moment (wild horses roaming the countryside) between the bloodletting and general despondency. Boyle busies himself making the backdrop to every attack appear as real as possible. The film's first jolt comes not from an infected creature leaping out of the dark, as might happen in a more conventional project, but from a car alarm going off, and from that point onwards, matters proceed towards the most credible outcome to every situation. In a comparable American feature, a vehicle plowing through wreckage would make it through without a scrape; here our heroes wind up with a flat tyre. Where the characters in most end-of-the-world cinema give into fuck-it hedonism, Boyle's principals can only squabble over how much Valium to give a girl who can't get to sleep. ("Give her half of one," her father grimly concedes.)
One of the few explicitly knowing references in the entire film - and, again, it's a specifically British reference - comes when Jim and Selina show up at an army base overseen by Eccleston's Major West: the troops, desperate for nourishment, strike up a chant of "We hope it's chips, it's chips", theme of that enduring McCain's commercial, and a reference that serves a dual purpose, garnering a laugh of recognition while situating the film firmly in the same Britain as the viewing hordes. As in the previous Boyle/Garland collaboration The Beach, 28 Days... turns on the point at which our notional hero becomes a shirtless wonder with a glint of madness in his eye - and thus a character it's not especially easy to warm to; it could also be said that after the highly atmospheric London opening, the second half - which relocates the action to Manchester - is a relatively conventional horror holdout in the manner of The Evil Dead or even this year's Dog Soldiers. But in its own way, 28 Days Later... is a quietly impressive addition to 2002's list of varied and accomplished homegrown productions, a Brit shocker of a rare scope and scale. Sometimes the pleasure of watching a film comes simply from being in the same room as the work of someone who really, really knows what they're doing.
28 Days Later... returns to UK screens this weekend as the latest Secret Cinema presentation. Full details can be found here.