Undead Do Dance

Danny Boyles 28 Days Later and Guy Maddins Dracula

The horror movie 28 Days Later puts a propulsive new spin on the term "going apeshit." It begins with animal-rights guerrillas trying to free monkeys from a London research center where they've become infected with a so-called Rage Virus (apparently worsened when the monkeys are tied down and forced to watch TV newscasts). But the rescue goes calamitously wrong, and the virus is released into the human population. Cut to 28 days later, and a bicycle messenger named Jim (Cillian Murphy) emerges from a coma to find himself in an abandoned hospital. In fact, the whole of the city is eerily deserted (there's not a soul at Piccadilly Circus in broad daylight!), and the walls bear graffiti that is, shall we say, disconcerting: "The end is extremely fucking nigh."

Turns out that England has been overrun by The Infected, victims of Rage Virus who come at you with crazy-monkey speed, chomp on human flesh or spew pints of blood that pass on their disease. Although Jim's post-coma disorientation looks to make him easy pickings, he's saved by hooking up with a handful of the uninfected—tough-but-tender Selena (Naomie Harris), protective Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Together, this quartet flees up north to Manchester, where a group of soldiers are broadcasting that they have discovered a cure for the virus.

When 28 Days Later was first announced, I was startled by this reunion of two Brits—director Danny Boyle and hot young novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland—whose careers were careering in different directions. Boyle had burst onto the international scene with Trainspotting, but, like so many English directors before him, he'd come to Hollywood and promptly lost his way. His last big movie, The Beach, didn't simply flop; it thoroughly mangled its source novel, replacing the book's deliberately low-rent portrait of slacker madness with big-budget, DiCaprio'd vacuity. The author of that betrayed novel was the 33-year-old Garland, and I just assumed he'd never speak to the director again.

Wrong. Instead, Garland has written Boyle a taut, gritty script that boasts enough shocks to keep us squirming—which of our heroes will get it next, and how?—yet cannily plays with different emotional textures. There are bursts of lyricism, tense moments of anticipation that lead to nothing, delicate scenes of melancholy charm: at one point, Frank serves everyone crème de menthe in a besieged London high-rise as "Frosty the Snowman" quietly plays in the background. Garland clearly cut his teeth on The Lord of the Flies, and he fills his story with dark intimations about hope, survival, resurrection through nature, and the fallen condition of man. Just like The Beach, this new movie insists that there's no community, however small or privileged, that's safe from the human capacity for violence. When Jim and his companions finally reach a military refuge commanded by a reflective, slightly cracked army major—played by tightly wound Christopher Eccleston—they soon discover that The Infected are no more dangerous than ordinary human beings in their efforts to survive the catastrophe.

Garland's commitment to realism, even in a horror movie, has clearly provided an anchor for Boyle, whose Hollywood work smothered its story in directorial flash. (It was as if he'd believed all those critics who celebrated Trainspotting's "style" and forgot that audiences actually liked its characters.) While 28 Days Later is itself a stylistic tour de force, Boyle recaptures his earlier storytelling briskness and deft touch with actors. He wins a fine performance by Murphy as Jim (imagine a warm-blooded Peter Weller), gets much more from Naomie Harris than her beaming-Ewok turn in the recent TV adaptation of White Teeth, and milks every last drop of delight from Gleeson, the sly, burly Irish actor who always gives the same performance but does it so amusingly that you don't care. Gleeson turns Frank into a wonderfully vivid creation—no man ever looked happier cradling a bottle of shoplifted whiskey.

The movie was shot on DV by the extraordinary Anthony Dod Mantle (Celebration, Julien Donkey-Boy), who helps Boyle exploit the visual possibilities of this still-emerging format. Not only do they fill the screen with ravishing images—metallic-blue rainfall spattering down from the skies, the burning bodies of The Infected tattooing the night—but they use comparatively cheap digital effects to create a haunting post-Armageddon London, stripped of most signs of recent life, aside from a church stacked with dead bodies and the odd Pepsi can. (It's reassuring to know that, even after the apocalypse, there will still be product placements.) Boyle intensifies this disorienting sense of estrangement with an aggressive soundtrack composed of jarring sounds and discordant music, from the Fauré Requiem to the runaway-train crescendos of the band Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Of course, the problem with making a movie about the living dead is that you inevitably call up the name of George Romero, the zombie-picture Shakespeare whose great trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) proved him to be a man of many parts—scaremeister, satirist, philosopher, misanthrope. Compared with Romero's work, 28 Days Laterfeels mild, with most of the real ghastliness taking place betweencuts. Still, the movie is mercifully uncontaminated by the smarty-pants self-reflexiveness that has sucked the lifeblood from nearly all post-Scream horror pictures. Clever enough not to be too clever, Boyle and Garland play their story straight—they just want to give you the creeps—and, by so doing, bring the undead back to cinematic life.

THe undead are dancing in Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, an adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire yarn that was financed by Canadian TV and stars the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. While this may sound like the deadliest concept of all time, the movie has a saving grace: it was directed by Guy Maddin, the wiggy-brilliant Winnipegian (Archangel, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) who's one of world cinema's genuine originals—he makes David Lynch look about as mainstream as Steven Spielberg. Both fiercely romantic and hilariously off-kilter (his silent-film aesthetic comes wedded to a supremely modern irony), Maddin's genius is so inescapably idiosyncratic that his work seems destined to remain a cult taste. Although Dracula won't change that, I hasten to add that this is the most inventive vampire picture of the past 80 years.

In adapting Mark Godden's ballet, Maddin finds something fresh in the material, spotlighting the paranoias that lurk in Stoker's original. He plays up the way that Dracula is laced with late Victorian fears of invasion from the East ("Immigrants!" shrieks one of the subtitles), a point echoed in the casting of Zhang Wei-Qiang as the Prince of Darkness. Traditionally, Dracula is played by an imposing figure—scary-faced Bela Lugosi or looming Christopher Lee. In contrast, Zhang is a lithe and ethereal fellow whose impassive features take us back to an earlier, more mythical day when vampires weren't yet campy wiseacres or tragic romantics à la Anne Rice. Maddin's Dracula is less a monster than a liberator, or maybe an enabler: His bite unleashes the suppressed eroticism in his female victims, and it's these young women's untrammeled sexuality that really terrifies all those righteous Victorian men around Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. And you can understand Dr. Van Helsing's terror when you watch Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) dancing after she's been bitten. She toys randily yet contemptuously with her three suitors, engages in a ravishing pas de deux with Dracula in a graveyard amidst falling snow, then teases her pursuers, racing feverishly from man to man in the moments before her grisly extermination.

Maddin has said that he worked hard "to put some of [his] own DNA" into a project that already contained Stoker's novel, Godden's choreography and symphonic music by Mahler. He's succeeded magnificently. This Dracula isn't simply Maddinesque but utterly cinematic, from its deflationary comic close-ups to its punctuation of the gorgeous black-and-white photography with sudden bursts of color—a drop of blood becomes an explosion of red. Where Boyle employs digital technology to give 28 Days Later a contemporary visual pop, Maddin uses it to endow his footage with the worn, slightly decayed look of an old film whose images are radiant and slightly haloed.

Still, for all of Maddin's stylistic panache, the movie's real power lies in his skill at making us feel the story's unruly emotions: this Dracula contains some of the most ecstatic filmmaking since the orgiastic concert scenes in Oliver Stone's The Doors. Maddin's real triumph is the way he captures the delirium, erotic thrill and sanguinary passion of the vampire myth. He knows that what unites the living and the undead is the inexhaustible need for fresh blood.

28 Days Later was directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland; produced by Andrew MacDonald; and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. Now playing at selected theaters. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary was directed by Guy Maddin; ballet written by Mark Godden, from the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker; produced by Vonnie Von Helmot; and stars Zhang Wei-Qiang and Tara Birtwhistle. Now playing at the Nuart, West Los Angeles.

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