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They See Undead People: Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, and Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later.Photo: Peter Mountain

In Danny Boyle’s low-budget apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later, animal-rights activists raid a primate-research facility and unwittingly unleash a deadly virus. (As if the PETA people didn’t have enough bad press already.) The virus is called Rage, which sounds like a termite powder but, in fact, turns infected humans into frothing banshees with blood pouring from every orifice. The zombies in 28 Days Later have a familial resemblance to those in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but their nightmarish celerity makes the wobbly staggerers in the Romero movies seem comical by comparison. These are zombies for the Pilates generation: The walking dead are no longer walking—they’re sprinting.

Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier, wakes up from a coma in a hospital 28 days after the viral outbreak and finds himself virtually alone in an evacuated London. Boyle shot the movie in digital video, and the blurry softness of the imagery gives a melancholy tinge to the emptiness. When the “infected,” as they are called, appear out of nowhere, the suddenness is especially horrific amid the dead calm. Jim hooks up with a few of the survivors and eventually makes his way to Manchester, where it is believed hope awaits them. (No, it’s not David Beckham.) Selena (Naomie Harris), a chemist who seems to have missed her calling as a SWAT-team commando, believes that “staying alive is as good as it gets.” Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), are far less cynical; they still believe in humanity even though the zombies are at their heels and even the rats are fleeing in fright.

Boyle and his screenwriter, Alex Garland, reference a hefty backlog of sources, including not only the Romero movies but On the Beach and The Omega Man and many others. But when we see Jim looking at a vast wall of notes written by people trying to locate their loved ones, or when we see the ravages of Rage on people who moments ago were healthy, the movie acquires a dread that seems unnervingly contemporary. Boyle doesn’t offer us any helping hand (except, unconvincingly, near the end). Even religion doesn’t make much of a stand; when Jim enters a church early on and is set upon by a blood-crazed priest, you know it’s all over. The surest sign of the indomitability of man in 28 Days Later is just a comic grace note, really: Frank, raiding a deserted convenience store for supplies, makes off with an armful of expensive single-malt scotch.

Boyle gives us precious few such moments, and that seems deliberate: He knows how much we would like to shuck off the awfulness and pretend it’s only a movie. The small budget, the tawdriness, actually works in the movie’s favor, just as it did for a movie like Night of the Living Dead. It makes for a more intimate brand of horror, one we can’t explain away by pretending we’re watching the same old well-oiled Hollywood malarkey. 28 Days Later is a first-rate zombie movie. The best tribute I can offer is that it makes you want to go out directly afterward and down some expensive single-malt scotch.

With Swimming Pool, François Ozon has paired himself once again with Charlotte Rampling, with whom he made the much superior Under the Sand. It’s Ozon’s first film in English, which perhaps explains the slightly tone-deaf quality of many of the scenes. Everyone seems to be speaking phonetically. Rampling plays a brittle English writer of murder mysteries who retreats to the country home of her publisher (Charles Dance) in the south of France. Her peace and quiet is interrupted by the appearance of the publisher’s French sexpot daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who is so much more entertaining than the repressed novelist that you ardently wish she’d run off with the movie. I don’t think even the young Bardot could have topped Sagnier in the role. Ozon has a smooth gift for scenes of unease, but ultimately Swimming Pool liquifies into a dreary puzzle movie.

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