Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is a swankily austere piece of jeepers-creepers sci-fi. At the opening of this stark and stylish apocalyptic horror film, there are quick-flash video images of riots, oppression, and panic in the streets, as if a planet's worth of televised news reports had merged into a single jittery moment of mass breakdown. The movie seems to be saying: Warning -- extremely topical nightmare ahead! A cabal of animal rights activists then breaks into a lab and frees a screaming monkey that, to quote the scientist on hand, is ''infected with rage.'' He isn't kidding. ''28 Days Later'' may have the solemn art atmosphere of a movie like Ingmar Bergman's ''Shame,'' but it's about an epidemic with attitude.
The movie flashes forward 28 days, picking up Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bike courier who looks a tad simian himself, as he wakes up in a hospital bed and wanders through the trashed and abandoned avenues of London. Most of humanity is gone -- wiped out, apparently, by a disease that has consumed the world's population. Boyle, the visually inspired director of ''Trainspotting,'' shot ''28 Days Later'' on digital video, and the ominous grainy mood of docu-realism makes every detail -- a wall of ''Missing'' posters, a car alarm -- part of a specifically contemporary dreamscape of fear. The looming shots of industrial housing, or of the bridge that leads up to Big Ben, devoid of people, have an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it immediacy. As Jim meets a handful of his fellow uninfected survivors, the yobbish Mark (Noah Huntley), the tough-as-nails Selena (Naomie Harris), and the feisty father and daughter Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), the film taps a host of free-floating anxieties -- interlocking fears of mass terrorism and lethal contagion, of a world turned against itself.
''28 Days Later'' was completed before the arrival of SARS (though after 9/11), yet it overlaps with that recent news event in a way that's timely enough to make the coincidence feel vaguely sinister, as if the movie knew something. Yet the mood of dread-ridden clinical awe is ultimately a tease. The human race isn't dead, you see; the infection has transformed most of the populace into rabid, gnashing zombies. ''28 Days Later'' turns out to be a kind of mod vérité companion piece to ''Night of the Living Dead.'' Where George A. Romero, in his ''Dead'' trilogy, filmed the ghouls as flesh-eating lumberers, the humanoid monsters of ''28 Days Later'' leap forward with shuddery speed, rasping like demons and vomiting blood, a mere drop of which can transform the healthy in a matter of seconds.
Boyle shoots these predators in a quasi-stroboscopic style that keeps them out of full view even when they're right in front of us. That his fantasy of ''rage'' run amok turns out to be a good old zombie freakfest is nothing to be ashamed of, but ''28 Days Later'' might have been even scarier had he acknowledged that's all he was making. Romero got away with B-movie characterizations because of his primal pulp fervor. In Boyle's film, with its meandering mood of bombed-out ''relevance,'' the thin characters are effective at the start but take you only so far (though the beautiful Naomie Harris has a no-nonsense allure). Jim and Selena end up at a military compound that has been organized for maximum safety, and I'm afraid the film's big didactic message is that those nasty, controlling soldiers are even worse than the ghouls. ''Trainspotting'' was a great movie, but it's clear by now that Danny Boyle has eyes more artful than his ideas. In ''28 Days Later,'' his zombies consume all, including his most ambitious fancies.More Scary Movies