After seeing the preview for 28 Days Later, those who love violent zombie movies rushed to the theatre hoping for chaotic bloodletting and absurd violence. Most others assumed it would be  just another icky horror film, and they steered around it as if it were typical roadkill. And who can blame them? Derivative, disposable horror movies show up almost every week these days, and those worth discussing are rarities indeed.

But Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) had a lot on his mind while he assembled this low-budget, high-tension thriller about zombies and the apocalypse. The result is, yes, terrifying, but not just in the “Yikes!” sort of way. It’s scary because, while we may never be stalked by slimy zombies, we are coming to know more and more what it is like to live in the midst of an angry, violent, explosive populace.

Like the best horror films, 28 Days Later taps into our primal fears. And like the best science fiction, it reflects things about the present and dares to prophesy about the monsters waiting for us around the corner.

Boyle’s troubling tale takes a cue from Stephen King’s The Stand, examining the effects of a massive and aggressive virus on a heavily populated city. It opens with a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up in a hospital. He disconnects himself from the abandoned medical equipment that someone had apparently been using to monitor his condition. And then he heads out into a city that has strangely turned to a ghost town.

Or better… a zombie town.

We soon learn that an epidemic has wiped out Jim’s world, a plague that began when scientists performed cruel experiments on monkeys, forcing them to watch newsreel highlights of the atrocities that human beings visit upon each other. The tests led to an outbreak of a virus appropriately named “Rage.” Rage takes over its host organisms and reduces them to barbaric, beastly behavior.

So Rage victims are not technically zombies… they’re not the undead. They are human beings whose higher natures have been overcome by a demonic acceleration of their baser appetites, turning them into murderous, ravenous beasts who mindlessly seek to kill those with more civilized and spiritually mature faculties.

In a panic, Jim hurries to a church for help, only to find the congregation slaughtered and bloodthirsty monsters lying in wait for him. He learns that attacks are not the only danger: contact with a mere drop of blood from the infected can render a man defenseless against the disease. Running for his life, Jim stumbles onto some survivors who teach him how to fight the heartless monsters. Together, they strive to learn the truth behind the rumors of a military outpost that offers refuge for the uninfected.

What they learn is hard to accept — that sin is inescapable. Even if uninfected human beings manage to hold these irrational Rage-monsters at bay, other forms of evil will rise in the human heart and corrupt us in other ways. To resist these forces, Jim and his friends will need more than barricades and weapons. Their resources are running out, and anyone who might be alive and able to help them is probably across the sea. They will need more than humanitarian aid and a Bono-led fundraiser.

Be warned: 28 Days Later is extremely violent and, at times, bloody enough to send the squeamish running for the exits. I am not a fan of the genre, because it seems to exist as an excuse to play upon our fears and to indulge in excessive violence and gore. This zombie movie, however, kept me riveted with its ideas, characterizations, and with the way it accomplishes so much with so little.

Screenwriter Alex Garland’s predictions are not too far off the mark. While I doubt there is any virus that can turn us into the bloodseeking, ranting, raving creeps that haunt this thriller, we have certainly seen the public more easily stirred up into violent outbreaks in recent years. And there have been rumors of nasty viruses that are growing stronger as our devices for hindering them get stronger. So the “ghost-town” aspect might not be such an outrageous idea.

Moreover, as I watched Jim and his companions fight for survival, I thought of the plight of African natives, who live today in fear of the forces that are butchering their communities. Even now, Sudan’s native population is crying out for help while their own Arab-dominated government funds this century’s first genocide.

I’m not just “reading into it.” Despite its disturbing visions and fantastic premise, Boyle’s film has critics examining it as a relevant tale for the era of SARS, AIDS, the West Nile Virus, and epidemics of civil unrest. Charles Mudede of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger writes,

No book or painting could have captured the late ’90s better than The Matrix; no sonata or sculpture could have better captured the post-Iraq War 2 mood than X2. If X2 got to the terrifying heart of the days leading to our most recent war, then 28 Days Later got to the heart of SARS. True, SARS came about after 28 Days Later was made (2002), but the environment that made the disease all the rage for the better part of the first half of 2003 is the very same environment that makes 28 Days Later the best horror film of our time.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the film is this: A response to evil that is merely rational and forceful, lacking love and compassion, will lead to whole new atrocities. Evil thrives within the hearts of human beings, and it excels at corrupting any devices we design.

Danny Boyle may have meant to write off religion by showing the bloodied church and the monstrous clergy at the beginning of the film. If so, he subverts his own anti-religious prejudice… for 28 Days Later is often punctuated with flourishes of sacred music, which seem to suggest that we may have to look beyond military might and appeal to the powers of heaven if we want to survive our own corruption.