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Deep Infection
Chris Dashiell

Apocalypse movies have become a standard SF subgenre, and like anything that becomes standard, the stories distance themselves from any real sense of dread, the better to innocently entertain us. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... doesn't completely escape this fate, but it attains an effect of gut-level fear often enough to make something of a difference in this sequel-ridden summer.

In the blunt opening sequence, animal activists liberate a group of chimps from a lab, but the apes have been infected (for some unknown purpose) with a deadly virus that reduces anyone catching it to a murderous red-eyed zombie. Cut to: 28 days later (as we're told by an intertitle), and a young man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed, stumbling out into a deserted London. The only clue he can find is a newspaper headline saying that the city has been evacuated. An eerie and effective sequence showing Jim wandering through the ghostly streets ends with him suddenly being chased by a pack of "infected," and then rescued at the last minute by a pair of gas-mask wearing survivors. When they get to safety, he learns the bad news. The infection has wiped out most of the people in England. There is no water, electricity, communications, or government. There's no way of knowing how far the disease has spread through the rest of the world. Everything and everyone Jim has known up until now is dead. The only thing left to do is to fight every day for survival.

Shot on video, and using shutter-strobe during the zombie attacks in place of more expensive special effects, the film's relatively low budget actually works in its favor. The grainy visuals and choppy editing helps evoke the story's feeling of menace. Boyle taps into the horror that has been with us since Hiroshima, of the possible destruction of civilization, and a descent into savagery. Selena (Naomie Harris), one of Jim's rescuers, demonstrates how hardened you have to be in this new world by quickly hacking a friend to death when he becomes infected. Screenwriter Alex Garland takes as his theme the reduction of human beings to amoral animals, and this jittery feeling of being totally without bearings permeates the film.

Eventually Jim and Selena meet two more survivors - a man and his teenage daughter (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns). They've heard a recorded message from the military on short wave, telling people to go north to Manchester where they'll be safe. After a perilous trip by auto, the survivors reach what turns out to be a small group of barricaded soldiers led by a smugly confident army major (Christopher Eccleston).

Obviously indebted to George Romero's series of "Living Dead" films, 28 Days Later... gives way to conventional action movie devices in its third act. The idea behind the new plot development, that a kill-or-be-killed society produces a situation that is just as scary as the nameless infection that threatens it, is a good one. But the way it manifests is strictly genre-bound, complete with good guys versus nasties, damsels threatened with sexual violation, and the lone hero overcoming incredible odds to wreak righteous havoc on the enemy. I wonder whether the unwritten rules of the movie market dictated this shift from queasy horror flick to action thriller. It's a familiar question nowadays. At what point does a good idea become compromised by the thought of how best to make money? In this case, I don't know if it really made any difference, or if indeed the film might have succeeded better with audiences by sticking to its doomed survivalist scenario.

I also found it troubling that the hero ends up displaying the same ruthless, terrifying brutality as the forces menacing him, but without any apparent psychic consequences. I'm sure this was intended as an ironic twist of some sort, but a twist without any effect on the character has no meaning outside of visceral expressions of revenge. In a story that touches such a deep place - the fear of losing everything familiar and loved, to be supplanted by blood and terror and death - this reversion to old-fashioned plot mechanics seems weirdly inadequate. I could feel the sudden shattering of the fictional dream, the lowering of my experience from edge-of-the-seat tension to mere complacency.

I dwell on the disappointment of the film's final third only because the picture aims for something better, and often succeeds. 28 Days Later... is far more worthy of your time than any of the amusement park rides disguised as movies now dominating the summer schedule. Boyle isn't scaring us just for the sake of it. He's really interested in millennial anxiety, and its effect on how we act and how we see ourselves (the picture seems particularly in tune with our post-9/11 mood, although it was apparently written before that event). With a little bit more courage, the film could have broken through genre expectations and been something very special. As it is, it breaks the mold just enough to stir up some interesting feelings, and to take an audience to places that are off the map.

Aki Kaurismäki's dry sense of humor takes some getting used to. A friend of mine refused to watch any more of his films after she saw The Match Factory Girl (which I consider a masterpiece) - "too depressing." One of the keys to understanding him, I think, is to imagine, while staying within probability, how bad things could get in your life. Then, when you've imagined the worst, try to find some good in it. Kaurismäki is a hopeful pessimist. His latest film, The Man Without a Past, is another of his miniature portraits of life on the fringes of society. Don't expect earth-shaking statements or epic sweep. If you have an open mind, do expect a bit of laughter.

A man (Markku Pettola) arrives in Helsinki by train, and is promptly mugged in the park, sustaining a head injury that wipes out his memory. After escaping from a hospital, he ends up living near the docks on the outskirts of the city, with a bunch of eccentric characters who live in abandoned railroad cars. He goes through various adventures, eventually falling for a sullen Salvation Army worker, played by Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen.

Society's need for names and identification is one of the film's humorous themes. The man can't receive any welfare services, and has trouble getting a job, because he can't remember his name and therefore can't sign the necessary forms. After witnessing a bank robbery, he is arrested for insubordination because he won't give his name. His case prompts a minor legal battle between the chief of police and a crafty attorney. This is just one droll example in a series of episodes establishing the man's precarious adjustment to a life of literal anonymity.

The craggy-faced Pettola projects an odd, deadpan charm. The cinematography has a strkingly burnished sheen. Admittedly, some of the film's ideas border on whimsy. But the central idea is quite beautiful. Happiness is a kind of surrender of the self. This means living in the present, and letting go of the past. The world of status, prestige, and identity, from which the film's characters are barred by the economic system, is ultimately an illusion. All of these themes are conveyed in the most understated way imaginable. The picture just lets them sink in without trying to state them outright. Kaurismäki is a poet of the streets - without glamour, without illusions, but without any rancor either.

©2003 Chris Dashiell