Saturday, February 07, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

The terrific 2002 zombie stomp 28 Days Later didn't require a sequel. It was brilliant, involving and entirely tormenting all on its own.

But after finally screening the nerve-racking 28 Weeks Later, I'm delighted Danny Boyle (as executive producer this time...) went ahead and made this sequel.

Because the follow-up film from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a surprisingly worthy continuation of the story. More than that, the harrowing sequel fulfills the highest aesthetic criteria of any film project: it reflects (to an often-alarming degree...) the turbulent times in which we live. So this is a horror movie sequel that is both scary and relevant.

And it isn't a remake or re-imagination, either.

After a bloody, fast-moving prologue set during the apex of the rage virus in England (the period covered in the original Boyle film), the movie jumps forward the titular 28 weeks to a span when the plague is quelled, and British citizens are slowly being repatriated to to an abandoned London. Specifically, American soldiers have moved into the eerily quiescent metropolis and been tasked with the impossible: reconstruction of an entire country. They also safeguard "The Green Zone" (or District 1), where 15,000 healthy civilians await the final clean up of the surrounding areas so they can resume their interrupted lives. Outside the green zone are rats, wild dogs, and contaminated food and water...

Quite plainly, the sub-text of 28 Weeks Later is nation-building in Iraq, and the difficult nature of the American post-war occupation. The dormant "rage virus" in the film is the equivalent of the "Insurgency" in reality. And like that insurgency, the plague is believed (by the Americans) to have suffered its "last throes." To the contrary, however, it returns more powerfully than ever. This fact throws all of London and the American forces into absolute chaos, necessitating a "surge" of firepower which consists of indiscriminate fire bombing, poison gas, and even a deliberate massacre of civilians. In the end, there are too few American forces to contain the disaster, and it expands -- in a horrifying epilogue -- to France.

The careful viewer may also detect a few resonances of the post-Katrina disaster in 28 Weeks Later, as innocent civilians become trapped in various buildings while outside disaster spreads. Despite this particular connection, the film nonetheless draws it's strongest energy from its examination of American military might...and the limits of that power.

One of the film's central characters, an American soldier named Doyle (Jeremy Renner), stops seeing the civilians as "targets" and starts viewing them as people. After being ordered to kill civilians, he breaks rank and goes to the aid of a handful of civilians. Far from being a "bad apple" (how the Bush people termed the torturers at Abu Ghraib), Doyle is most definitely a "good apple." He doesn't lose sight of his humanity, he doesn't blindly follow bad orders, and he is an entirely positive depiction of an American soldier. I found this to be an enormous relief, frankly. Doyle's young, loud and goofy, but he's a hero too: ready and able to do the right thing when the situation warrants it; even if it means laying down his life.

I also admired the under-the-surface notion presented in 28 Weeks Later that "humanity" -- if given the opportunity to spread -- can ultimately prove as "contagious" as the deadly rage virus. A likable American doctor (Rose Byrne) commits to saving two children in the film - Tammy (Imogene Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) - and her steadfast commitment rubs off on Doyle; who then passes it on to a Special Forces Helicopter Pilot (Harold Perrineau).

28 Weeks Later is packed wall-to-wall with inventive conceits like that; ones that successfully distinguish it from its modern zombie brethren. The movie raises the specter, for instance, of a Rage Virus Typhoid Mary - a carrier - and that's an original wrinkle aqmidst the zombie apocalypse.

Also, one of the main characters here, Don (Robert Carlyle), is quickly proven a despicable coward in the film's bravura opening passage and then presented as our lead for the next half-hour or so. Don abandons his beloved wife during a zombie attack on a farm house, flees the area by boat, and then makes his way to the Green Zone...where he greets his children, the aforementioned Andy and Tammy. All during these scenes, the viewer wonders: if Don is willing to abandon his own wife when the going gets tough, how is he going to protect his kids when the inevitable zombie attack comes?

Ultimately, however, the use to which Don (and Carlyle himself...) is put in the larger narrative proves far less innovative than that neat set-up suggests. We never get the chance to see what Don would do the second time he is faced with choosing between possible death and rescuing his family.

Instead, Don simply becomes an improbably long-lived rage zombie who survives one attack after another and pops up (conveniently...) for a final scare. I suppose that an intrepid film historian might consider Don a kind of homage to Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) or the lead zombie in Land of the Dead (2005), but giving the zombies a distinct leader doesn't work particularly well here. The overriding force in 28 Weeks Later is the rising tide of chaos: the ways in which one disaster leads to another and another. With zombies running around in great numbers, that idea is powerful enough without an identifiable "leader." The message may simply be that Don -- whether a person or a zombie -- is a "survivor." However, the ease with which this single, unarmed zombie outlasts fire bombing, gassing and rifle snipers simply raises too many questions of believability.

One of the reasons 28 Weeks Later succeeds so ably for the most part is that it logically and impressively expands the scenario of 28 Days Later, tending toward the spectacular. There are some amazing special effects in the film, particularly the fire bombing of London. And one scene -- involving a helicopter's massacre of attacking zombies in a field -- is an amazing horror set-piece the likes of which you've imagined (thanks to a propeller decapitation scene in Dawn of the Dead [1979]) but never considered possible on this scale.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo also proves capable with the more intimate "creep" sequences. A descent into a pitch-black subway makes excellent use of "night vision," for instance. And Tammy and Andy's trip (on a moped) through abandoned, ruined London successfully evokes many historical "abandoned city" movies, from The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) to Omega Man (1971).

I detected Fresnadillo chasing his tail in only one important sequence. When Don (now a zombie...) breaks into a containment area where civilians are crowded in the dark, the film lingers on make-up that isn't that good, relies on slow-motion photography that reveals too much, and suffers from too many incoherent quick cuts. The scene is a melange of confusion, a virtual disaster (perhaps form echoing content?) but I imagine it was not meant to be so visually unappealing. Fortunately, this weak scene is followed by a virtuoso, nail-biting rooftop sniper sequence involving Doyle, and 28 Weeks Later quickly goes back on track.

I doubt that a second follow-up to Boyle's original -- 28 Months Later? -- is a necessity. However, if a third film in this Brit zombie saga is crafted with the overall skill, intelligence and imagination of this scary sequel, then Romero's zombie cycle may truly have some stiff competition in the franchise department.


  1. Anonymous11:58 AM

    I'm a long time reader so I hope you'll pardon this long post.

    I was happy to finally see a review for this movie on your blog. I perfectly agree with you and I also thought that this film wasn't just another "unnecessary sequel".

    I'm surprised that you didn't mention how brilliant the opening scene was (directed by 2nd unit director Danny Boyle) or how good the original music is (especially compared to the original film's brilliant soundtrack).

    I didn't really see Zombie-Don as being a leader for the infected, but I just thought of this movie as being told from the rage point of view, or the point of view the infected. You follow Don's errand through the city to eradicate this "humanity virus" that you spoke of in your review. This perspective also explains why the movie seems so much violent and hopeless (to us humans) than the first, yet in the end, it's happy ending for the virus. So, as contrived as Zombie-Don's appearances were, I thought they came for an original idea.

    Anyway, I wanted to assure you that work on a sequel seems to be indeed going forward. 28 Months Later would also see Boyle returning behind the camera. You can check out the end of this interview for his comments on the subject:

    I can finally take the time to thank you for your amazing reviews and dedication to your blog.

    Take care,

  2. Laurent,

    Thank you for being a long-time reader, and thank you for posting your excellent comment. Don't be shy about making your feelings known here...I encourage more comments! :)

    You are 100% right about that bravura opening sequence. It is an absolute humdinger.

    The first thing I wrote in my notes (but that didn't make it into the review...) is that the movie opens with a "quiet scene of dsperation" that puts the viewer "ill-at-ease immediately," until "all hell breaks loose most convincingly." Yeah, it's an amazing, breakneck bit of business!

    Glad you mentioned it! :)

    I take your point about Zombie Don -- he's our surrogate for the infected, and my wife even mentioned his sort of "Infect-O-Cam" perspective that we see occasionally. I don't dislike that aspect of it, I just found it hard to believe he would have so much success tracking (if not attacking...) the living.

    Anyway, this is a grat sequel and I'm ready for round three. Bring on 28 Months Later!

    all my best,

  3. This was a really good sequel which I found even more horrifying than the first film. I also like, as you point out, the political commentary and parallels to what's going on in the world today which seems to be missing from so many horror films coming out today.

    Excellent review!

  4. I just figured Zombie Don was following them the entire time, that he was always nearby.

    Something I found interesting was the repeated building-up and destruction of family units, with the "protector," role constantly shifting from person to person, depending on who is available. Alice [with the little kid], Tammy, Rose Byrne's character, Doyle, Rose Byrne, Tammy. Don's kind of the odd man out, even when he's around, the protector role never goes to him. He leaves his wife to die, Tammy still takes care of Andy after they're reunited with him, then actually has to save Andy from him...

  5. Terrific film! Great franchise! I thought that the somewhat loud bashing of this film as being anti-American in it's more-than-obvious- political undertones was knee-jerk and malformed. In the original, it was British soldiers who were the despicable cads, if anything, there is a anti-military tone to the series, irregardless of nationality.

    That being's now 2012 and where is '28 Months'?