28 WEEKS LATER
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
When I initially heard that Fox was releasing a sequel to the intense, pseudo-zombie survival flick 28 Days Later sans writer Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle (although both maintain a presence as a executive producers) or any of the members of the original cast, I was quick to lump it in with the recent slate of uninspired horror-film sequel cash-ins. But then I started seeing trailers, and damned if they didn't make the second film look pretty good.
Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) has done a wonderful job expanding and dare I say improving upon the original formula to create an unrelenting, harrowing nightmare. The film begins with an altogether new set of character's experiences during the initial outbreak of the rage virus (a simian-bred, species-jumping plague that turns its victims into violent psychotics who in turn try spreading it even further by vomiting blood on new victims). Trainspotting alum Robert Carlyle appears as Don, who has holed up with his wife (Braveheart's Catherine McCormack) and a small group of survivors. Their early scenes are eerie, candlelit moments of softness, and are all the more nerve-jangling due to the fact that nothing remotely Zombie-like is occurring. A tender kiss is almost excruciating to bear because we know that any second the silence could be shattered by a rampaging, blood spattering freakazoid.
Of course the nightmare does go down, but not necessarily as we expect it to. Don is forced to leave his wife behind in the vile clutches of the infected, and runs off to catch a boat before they can add him to their frothing ranks. This opening segment is a punishing, expertly crafted piece set to John Murphy's unnerving tune 'In The House – In A Heartbeat' that was so well used in the previous film. We instantly realize that Fresnadillo's vision is something to reckon with, and although he retains the documentarian feel of the original, he manages to infuse this film with its own demented, fractured beauty. He captures odd helicopter-based tracking shots of Carlyle as he races off to salvation, popping in and out of frame as our own sense of sanity comes and goes.
After the emotionally punishing opening, we speed forward to the aftermath of the Rage incident, and find a rehabilitated London able to accept its ex pats who have been finally cleared to return home. Don's children Tammy and Andy (relative newcomers Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton – I think they should form a comedy troupe called Poots & Muggleton) had been away during the outbreak, and are eager to go back to their childhood home. Unfortunately for them, most of the urban residential neighborhoods of the city are still under quarantine, so they will be residing in a fully furnished high-rise building at which their father also works as a caretaker.
Carlyle is fantastic in these scenes, as he clearly feels an overwhelming amount of guilt for leaving his wife behind to die, and can't decide exactly how to put across the manner of her death to his children. Meanwhile, an occupying American armed force nestles in bunkers and on nearby rooftops, keeping an eye on things in case an outbreak occurs. Jeremy Renner's Doyle is a sniper who scans the numerous high-rise windows through his rifle scope. While he considers it his version of ‘Reality TV', for the viewer shots of families flitting in and out of crosshairs chillingly presages events to come. Other members of the military presence include Lost's Harold Perrineau as a helicopter pilot and Rose Byrne as the Army worker Scarlet, the latter of whom immediately takes interest in the anomalous eyes of Andy, who sports a weird multicolored combination handed down from his mother's side of the family.
The kids immediately break orders to sneak off across the Thames in search of their deserted home. While instinctually one wants to yell at them for being outrageous dumbasses, they have solid emotional reasons for doing what they do. Once again the numerous shots of them meandering through the post-plague streets are off-putting to say the least, and we're left constantly waiting for a lost zombie to jump at us from behind a counter. When they do encounter an unexpected survivor, it's a great story move that enhances Carlyle's situation while simultaneously proffering the idea that some folks may possess genetics immune to the virus. Come to find out, the survivor is also a carrier – and soon enough the whole thing spirals out of the military's control as a new Rage outbreak spreads like wildfire.
When the good guys decide to pull the plug on politeness and order snipers to turn out the lights on any walking survivor, things take a grim turn. Doyle and Scarlet both realize that the pooch has been officially screwed, and take it upon themselves to save what few survivors they can before the entire city gets napalmed by US Forces. Scarlet has a special interest in the kids' survival, as she expects Andy's blood may hold the key to a possible cure to the virus. While this kind of story has been plumbed numerous times before, something about the way it is presented in this film renders it fresh. Likewise, 28 Weeks Later sports the first ‘running from a fireball' scene in eons to feel vital and threatening. There's also a ‘driving away from toxic gas' moment that raises plenty of goosebumps.
The film is a visually creative powerhouse. When survivors are creeping around dark, deserted city streets, it captures a truth to that scenario rarely seen in other films. The darkness feels real, and inspires dread in the viewer as characters are forced to race blindly down alleys before perched snipers can sever their spines with a single shot. There's also a great scene as Doyle watches through the dirty rear window of an abandoned van as the dark shapeless figures of flamethrower-wielding soldiers slowly emerge from a blanket of grey nothingness. And when certain members of the group are forced to enter a tube station and climb over the charred remains of Londoners while taking direction from the one person with a night vision scope, it's fraught with every just about every kind of fear imaginable.
There's also a remarkable moment when Perrineau's Flynn flies his chopper to a designated meeting point, only to go berserk when he realizes there are too many people to save and too many infected people in the neighboring fields. The handheld shots of the helicopter banking violently and performing insane maneuvers are breathtaking, and the film soon displays a soberingly realistic version of the rotor blade vivisection scene from Grindhouse. Both moments are an organic evolution of the scene from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in which a stumbling zombie loses his skull cap to a huey blade, but it's amazing to see how different the same concept can play when presented seriously in place of giddy laughs.
While 28 Days Later was an unexpected blast of fresh air to what some called a stale genre, it was also slightly uneven at times. It wasn't until later viewings that I fully appreciated the third act with its focus on militia survivalists and Cillian Murphy's devolution into primal rage sans the virus. And like most great zombie films (although purists will gladly point out that these are not actually zombie flicks since the antagonists are still alive) there are humans that are just as much if not more of a threat as the monsters. It's also an interesting comment on family, and how blood ties can be powerful even when the family unit is ultimately a destructive one. One Rage-inflicted character continually seeks out the other members of his family in spite of a lack of rational thought and capacity to love.
28 Weeks Later is a little more consistent overall, and while its ending doesn't match the gut-punch of the first film's blood-drenched finale, it actually aims for the solar plexus earlier on and sustains the beating for an unbelievable amount of time. Say what you will about Spielberg's War of the Worlds redux, it succeeded at pummeling the viewer with an unstoppable barrage of insurmountable horrors. 28 Weeks does the same thing, but with even more of a documentary style that is often reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. It's also a gorgeous picture for all of its unseemly subject material, and I was constantly dazzled by inventive shots that outperformed the uber-digital style of the original.I wasn't sure at first if I liked the film more than the first, but the truth of the matter is that it haunted me much more than 28 Days Later. It lingered in my brain for much longer, and I immediately felt the desire to see it again. In this case, the proof is in the pudding and the fact that it affected me so much saved me the trouble of trying to quantify my feelings for the two projects. Against all odds and expectations, 28 Weeks Later is better than its predecessor. We can only hope that there are other horror sequels this good out in the mist.