Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cult Movie Review: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

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

However, 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 like its predecessor, this is a horror movie sequel that is both scary and relevant.

And it isn't a remake or re-imagination, either, which is always nice.

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 -- released in 2007 -- is the nation-building effort 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 them disaster multiplies.  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.

To wit, 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" (which is 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 is 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 felt that this character arc honors the principle of the original film: that it is better to live and die as a human than to survive as a thug or a monster.

Indeed, I 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. For instance, 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 many modern zombie brethren. The movie raises the specter, for instance, of a Rage Virus Typhoid Mary - a carrier - and that's an original wrinkle in the zombie apocalypse.

Also, one of the main characters here, Don (Robert Carlyle), is quickly proven a despicable coward in the film's 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.  That's a shame.  Can the infection of humanity trump the infection of rage, or cowardice?

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 out-lasts fire bombing, gassing, and rifle snipers simply raises too many questions in terms of believability and logistics.

One of the reasons 28 Weeks Later succeeds 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 impressive  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, however. 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 regains its footing.

So this is overall an above-average sequel to a great horror film, which is better than what we sometimes get...


  1. John, well thought out review. I absolutely agree with London being a play on the U.S. military nation-building effort in Iraq. Both here and in Katrina the people were told by authorities to go to the sports stadium for sanctuary or in this film pick up by helicopter. I have to believe if this ever happened no one would ever volunteer to live in the London again without fearing the rage returning.


  2. I must say, I did not think that the opening sequence was cowardice. Survival instincts are often not pretty. He very clearly told his wife to leave the boy, to come with him, she did not, the other infected stormed the room, she was cut off, she sealed her own fate. The choice was to die a hero, or live. He chose life, no cowardice there. My fiance abhorrs the Carlyle character, I say when it's fight or flee, you better make the right choice. She should have left the boy, who wasn't theirs, and went with her husband, mourn the boy later.
    I also think the opening sequence was the closest set piece to the original in the film.