Photo by Michael Putland/Retna Ltd.

Horror movies are not a genre for dilettantes; ever since the dawn of the cinema, the best celluloid creep-outs have been made by directors who devote themselves fully to the form. That’s just one of the reasons why Trainspotting director Danny Boyle’s balls-to-the-wall gore fest 28 Days Later is such a pleasant surprise.

If you listen to Boyle, however, it’s not a horror film at all. “I’ve always liked being what I call ‘willful,’” he explained at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its U.S. premiere in January, “taking a genre and fucking with it a bit so you’re not delivering to its fans, although they might think they’re getting what they want.” Certainly, Days delivers the left-field scares, over-the-top set pieces and all-around intensity that have been the core ingredients of movies about flesh-eating zombies ever since George A. Romero revolutionized the subgenre with Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

So where does Boyle’s willfulness come in? Like the Romero classic and its sequels, 28 Days Later uses blood and guts as a stalking-horse for serious social commentary. The movie opens with a group of animal-rights activists breaking into a lab to liberate monkeys used in medical tests, little knowing that the simians are infected with a designer virus that winds up wiping out nearly all of the British population by turning them into brainless, bloodthirsty killing machines — terminally enraged rather than actually undead. Screenwriter Alex Garland (who wrote the novel The Beach but not the screenplay for Boyle’s 2000 screen adaptation) acknowledges that the decline of public civility was on his mind. “Not too long ago, this stuff just didn’t happen — people didn’t go crazy and knife each other over some argument at a traffic light,” said Garland at Sundance. And, of course, the danger of trying to modify human nature is one of the great allegorical science-fiction themes: “The thing about genre films is that they’re incredibly adaptable. They’ve got a huge amount of shorthand built in. You can just push a bunch of buttons, and people are up to speed immediately. We’ve got this whole premise we can set up in two minutes and never really refer to again.”

Another theme that emerged over the shoot — which proceeded at a rapid clip, in sequence on digital video — was a critique of the relationship between Britain (one of the few European Union members to resist swapping its own currency for the euro) and its Continental neighbors. “When we began shooting, we implied that the whole world had been infected in some way,” said Boyle. “Later, we nailed it, the image of Britain as a quarantined island cast off into the sea. The insularity of the U.K. — I think it’s sad, actually. Britain is still hanging on to World War II and the myth that we stood alone, which is bollocks.”

Boyle avoided re-watching the canonical zombie films before the shoot to avoid unconsciously aping them, though Garland inserted deliberate homages to an array of classic science-fiction and horror films and novels, including Dawn of the Dead and The Day of the Triffids, the source for the sequence set in a depopulated London that climaxes with shots of handbills posted by people seeking missing loved ones — filmed just days before the September 11 attack made similar fliers ubiquitous in New York. “We had a discussion about whether to remove that stuff,” said Garland, “but we figured that since we shot it beforehand, it was legit.” The global spread of SARS, which began well after the film’s U.K. release, has since compounded its eerily prophetic nature.

The only real thread connecting Danny Boyle’s films is that no two are remotely alike. In exploring a new genre, he saw an opportunity to correct a past “failing”: “I don’t think I delivered enough violence and intensity with the end of The Beach, really,” he mused, reflecting back on the climactic collapse of the idyllic island community in his last feature. With 28 Days Later, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna direct the fuck out of this, and I don’t care if people think it’s tasteless.’ It’s inch by motherfucking inch, as Oliver Stone said, tiny bit by tiny bit. It’s what you have to do as an action director, and I really enjoyed it, and I drove everybody mad.”

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