Let's get it out of the way, first thing out of the gate: Yes, the latest horror import from France -- the appropriately-titled Mutants -- as a lot in common with Danny Boyle's modern classic 28 Days Later. In fact, Mutants skirts dangerously close to "copycat" syndrome on more than one occasion. But it doesn't take a veteran horror hound to see that first-time director David Morley is much more interested in homage than ripoff. Hell, one could even call Mutants "an unofficial French sequel" to 28 Days and / or 28 Weeks Later if they chose, and that description would certainly be appropriate -- if, I must say, just a little bit short-sighted. Yes, this film is about a world in which a horrible virus has rendered most of the population dead or dying a slow death as a ravenously violent beast -- but hell, if Night of the Living Dead can inspire a hundred movies (and it has), then I say it's fair game for 28 Days Later to inspire one or two, especially if they turn out to be as interesting as Mutants.
For much of its running time, Mutants is certainly content to wade through the ickiness laid down in Boyle's widely-adored piece of apocalyptic horror, but (like all the recent French horrors, such as Martyrs, High Tension, and Inside) Mutants takes the "insanely infected" premise and widens its scope to include a variety of disturbing new concepts. Our lead character, for example, is an emergency room doctor who spends most of the film desperately trying to keep her lover among the living. No matter how desperate and distressing things get inside the isolated lunatic asylum they call a shelter, poor Sonia does all she can to salvage her boyfriend, who is practically disintegrating before her eyes. At its finest moments, the first half of Mutants reminds one of Simon Rumley's horrific The Living and The Dead or Cronenberg's brilliant adaptation of The Fly. Basically, if you can think of anything "scarier" than watching a loved one waste away, then you have a pretty morbid imagination. Morley takes these fears and infuses them into a horror tale that somehow still feels "fun," despite all the true horrors on display.
Mutants could also be deciphered as a powerful pro-feminism statement: Our Sonia is scared and vulnerable, but (in some ways) impervious to the outside threat. She's also got her own brand of "internal pressures" to deal with, but she's no slouch with a weapon, and she also has to learn how to say goodbye to her doomed boyfriend ... but not just yet. And none of the loftier themes or ideas get in the way of a gory good time. Though perhaps just a little bit "tamer" than what we're used to from the French these days, this is a horror flick that revels in both the art and artistry of graphic gory mayhem. The disease that runs rampant in Mutants is similar to the one found in 28 Days Later, with one key difference ... and really, it's all right there in the title, horror fans.
The massive building used for most of the Mutants mayhem becomes a character unto itself, and Morley does an exceedingly fine job of balancing the curious isolation of the mysterious facility with the harsh winter landscape that runs blankly in all directions. Long moments of quiet (almost heartbreaking) horror are intermittently punctuated by the sort of rapid-fire chaos that we know and love from the all the finest "invading horde" movies, and the film ends on a note that's both oddly satisfying and appreciably ambiguous. If Mutants borrows just a bit too much from a well-known recent horror flick, well, at least the filmmakers have enough taste to draw inspiration from a film that actually deserves a little emulation -- plus it must be noted that Mutants certainly does infuse its own distinct brand of emotional horror into a story that generally only works on a physical level.
Bottom line: Whatever they're feeding those horror fans in the French film schools, I say keep it on the menu.