With their latest stylish outing, the Scottish directing-producing team of Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald burrow back past the unexpectedly joyous pop debauchery of their biggest hit, 1996’s Trainspotting, to the creeping terror of their debut. 1994’s Shallow Grave was a cramped, poisonous, cynical speculation about what a briefcase full of cash might do when on the loose in a household of three decent people. 28 Days Later takes this premise to a spookily prescient macro level, unleashing a devastating virus on the United Kingdom and watching the survivors attempt to survive each other. The film is horrific, grotesque, wildly entertaining in a squirmy way, and ultimately not nearly as revolutionary as its biting graininess makes it feel.

The action begins when a coterie of animal-rights activists breaks into a chimp-filled laboratory and commits the well-meaning but misguided act of freeing the animals. The monkeys have been infected not with a bacterium but with an emotion: strapped down and forced to watch televised evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, they’ve become suffused with rage. Symptoms include red eyes, frothing at the mouth, the violent shredding of others, and a copious spewage of rage-infected blood, which, once it enters a victim’s bloodstream, takes effect within a few seconds.

Twenty-eight days after the release of the monkeys, Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of how he got there and no understanding of why London has been utterly abandoned. He wanders the litter-blown streets of a curiously anonymous city—what’s in it doesn’t matter anymore, not the grand buildings or cheery advertising or touching wall of “Missing” fliers counting up the lost beloved. Jim stumbles into a church, where, beneath a radiant stained-glass window, a multihued fresco of the dead decays in the church pews. The infected still roam, however, and a priest lunges at our hero in strobic motion just seconds before he gets an all-important clue about what’s happened.

A duo of commando-style survivors hustles Jim to safety. Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris) are early adaptors, having converted their humanity into a survival mechanism in the month since the virus first appeared. Hiding by night, hoarding soda and candy by day, the trio soon comes across another troupe living by its uninfected wits: jovial Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his tougher-than-she-looks daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), who are on the verge of mental collapse. Alerted by a recorded radio broadcast to an “answer to infection,” they set off north on an eerie road trip of lost souls.

The journey is full of beauty and terror; alternately cutting up, ransacking shops, enjoying the countryside, and being attacked by the roaming infected, the group witnesses the highs and lows of starting from post-apocalypse scratch. We see the phantasmagoric landscape through Boyle’s digital-video lens, which allows for a dreamy realism that approximates the travelers’ ambivalence: A field blurs into an impressionist ocean of red blooms; a major city angrily burns but refuses to fall; the attacking infected jump out of nowhere, and the resulting battles are busily, blessedly only half-seen. None of which disguises the campy seed from which this piece of thinky art grew: It’s Night of the Living Dead all over again, a zombie flick with Big Ideas. George Romero’s pulp masterpiece envisioned the conformity of modern life as the advance of shuffling, brain-dead meatbags; Boyle revs it up with caffeine, broadband, and superspeedy Type A killers enacting the hostile takeovers of the nearest living thing.

That the survivors manage to seem as human as they are iconic is a tribute to the movie’s feel for the incidental intimacies of their grand-scale ramble. But 28 Days Later begins to unravel when the little band reaches its goal, a military compound set up around a great château. (The statue of Laocoön eternally wrestling a king-size serpent in the foyer is a nice touch, though.) Here, Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) promises to keep the wanderers safe and infection-free as long as they abide by the rules and accept his master plan for Earth: The Sequel.

Because Alex Garland’s script casts off the old points of comfort, contact, and faith—science in the chimp lab, human kindness in the foolish animal activists, family in those sadly flapping fliers, religion in the corpse-strewn church and rabid priest—it’s a sure bet that the military isn’t the spring from which a glorious New Albion will gush forth. Still, it’s hard to sympathize with the appalled Jim when he rejects Maj. West’s plan—it sounds very sensible, even if the army is kind of jerky about it. Hard-boiled expediency bids the major create a new world chop-chop, but Jim wants something finer from the twisted opportunity offered by the plague. Buffeted about by the winds of the filmmakers’ philosophical speculations, he becomes a weapon-wielding hero when the argument falls apart—a curiously Hollywood-style development in a film otherwise so scabrous and unhealing.

Whatever Boyle and Macdonald’s level of success in realizing their vision, from The Beach to Trainspotting to the garishly awful A Life Less Ordinary, they certainly have a point of view. Amid all the internecine bickering that makes up the filmmakers’ philosophical house of cards, the idea that transmits most clearly is that we need not a disease but merely an excuse to unleash the kind of mayhem that devastates England. The upshot is that only goodness and decency hold us back from behaving like the infected, which is not only simplistic and depressing but also puts Jim and his chosen few in the God seat. He gets to decide who carries on and how, his hubris making a hash of any coherent attitude toward the innocent victims of rage. As a political stance, it’s ravaging—Stalin thought you could make a nice little omelet at the expense of millions of unwitting eggs, too. If this is the filmmakers’ take on humanity, it’s much scarier than their movie. CP