I do not quite recall the mood around 28 Weeks Later upon its 2007 release. I remember the wonderful “Maintain The Quarantine” poster, and that the production was financed at the full flush of Fox Atomic, 20th Century Fox’s ill-fated investment into a full blown genre label funded by the success of 28 Days Later…
Danny Boyle’s not-quite-a-zombie-movie (a silly debate that rages on to this day) from 2002 nevertheless completely re-invented and reanimated the zombie movie with the much maligned but highly profitable ‘running zombies.’ It also introduced digital video into the mainstream, but being such an early adopter of the technology, I would argue the original’s standard definition look has not aged particularly well -- although Boyle himself argues that DV was an intentional aesthetic (and largely logistical) choice at the time.
Boyle was fully occupied with the production of Sunshine when the sequel got the green light from Fox, and he turned over direction duties to Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who opted to shoot the second entry in multiple formats, but mainly on rich and grainy 16mm film, which has aged exceptionally well in the ensuing decade.
A high energy, thematically rich, and violent-as-hell horror film as there ever was, I am going to make the case here that in the current (one might even say relentless) 21st century popular cycle of zombie films 28 Weeks Later is the best and brightest of them all.
*Spoilers to follow*
Fresnadillo and writer Rowan Joffe abandon the survivors of the original film played by Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and opt to tell a new story with two facets, the personal and the political. One is the ultimate betrayal inside a family and its fall out, the other concerns of the hubris of the American military setting up a ‘Green Zone' inside an occupied/infected foreign country. The film was written during the quagmire of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is both timely and universal.
28 Weeks Later, in many ways, also hearkens back the roots of the modern zombie film. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was mostly about dysfunction. The inability of a disparate group of individuals trapped in farmhouse as the (slower) zombie hordes fought their way in two work together. The danger was just as significant (perhaps moreso) from the panic and ineptitude of the people as it was from the undead. This continued through Romero’s entire cycle of Dead films.
In an opening prologue, Night of the Living Dead is re-created almost in miniature and at speed. In a candle-lit but fully boarded up estate where Don (Robert Carlyle), and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack), along with the home owners and other strays, are bunkered down against the Rage infection in its early days.
You can sense the various tensions in the household even in these precious, quiet moments. Things rapidly go to hell the door is unboarded to let in a frightened and starving child. His dozen-odd infected pursuers are not far behind, and tear the house to pieces in short order, leaving most of the residents killed, and Don running for his life after he abandons Alice while she is attempting to protect the child in an upper floor bedroom.
In one of the films signature visual moments, Alice communicates her shock at his betrayal, with the sharpest of ‘spousal stares’ even as she protectively clutches the surrogate young boy. Don, who is completely wigged out, still manages to convey shame and guilt at his conscious betrayal. Much was made at the time of the magnificent ariel shot of Don's fleeing across an open field full of sprinting infected makes and his narrow escape by water. But that look from Alice is haunting. It will surface again, later.
A hard cut to the title of the film 28 Weeks Later leaves us to catch our breath from the bravura opening scene that assures us that we are very much in good hands. It is noteworthy here that Fresnadillo’s previous feature Intacto features an equally superb sequences with a crowd of people running through a forest with blindfolds, trusting luck to not smack hard into trees. I imagine for that sequence alone he was selected for the job here, in a film that does involve a lot of running, both by the uninfected and the infected.
Thorough a series of title cards, we are informed that in the months that followed the viral outbreak in Britain, it miraculously never made it across the Straight or overseas, and authorities waited for several months for the crazies all to starve to death, before enlisting the United States military to set up a beachhead on the Isle of Dogs in London to clean up the millions of corpses and, eventually, repatriate the country.
Don is now a infrastructure worker in the ‘Green Zone’ and is reunited with his two children (Mackintosh Muggleton, a young, pre-starlet Imogen Poots) who were on a field trip in Spain, and thus avoided the initial nightmare of Britain’s fall. After six months, they are the first kids allowed back into the UK, and they have some tough, emotional questions for their dad on what happened in that country estate house.
It is here that the fastidious groundwork is truly laid out, with a lot of heavy lifting by Robert Carlyle who projects shame and love in equal measure. The kids point out that in spite of him bragging about his all-access pass, he is really more of a janitor, or a ‘caretaker,’ which is bleakly ironic considering the opening act.
The military side (shades of equally underrated Day of the Dead) of things is introduced, with Idris Elba playing the cool as a cucumber Yankee general exerting his will over senior biologist Scarlet. Played by Rose Byrne, perhaps as an ode to Ellen Ripley, particularly in James Cameron's chapter of the Alien franchise, it is unclear whether or not that is intentional, but Scarlet is fierce and kind and motivated.
A pair of competent, but goofball, soldiers played by pre-A List Jeremy Renner (who is auditioning here, in a fashion, for The Hurt Locker), and Lost regular Harold Perrineau watch over the few thousand ‘colonists’ on the island in the River Thames. Their casual behavior and attitude subtly shows the disconnect between the brass and the boots on the ground during these sorts of occupation operations since time immemorial. That is to say, they are not particularly winning hearts and minds, even if they are the good folks.
Kids being kids, it is not long before they sneak off out of the Green Zone to have a look at their old home, and possibly grab a memento or two. The budgetary lift of the sequel offers a more realized version of abandoned London, this time littered with rotting corpses, garbage and biohazard bags. The freedom leavened with the gag-reflex of these scenes, bring more humanity to the film than your average zombie outing, and for much of the first half of 28 Weeks Later, Fresnadillo set the tone of a post-apocalyptic drama.
That is until the kids discover their mother in hiding in the home. She has been living like wild dog for months, and judging by her eyes, she is infected. Through a genetic quirk, Alice is akin to the early 20th century Typhoid Mary - she is immune to the virus, but still a viral carrier. Her children might have a similar immunity, particularly the boy.
Both Mom and son have different iris colours (think David Bowie) in each of their eyes. This was a striking feature of the films key art, but it appears to be Rose Byrne on the (admittedly stylized) poster, not Catherine McCormack, which is weird and confusing.
While the children are happy to have their mother back, and the Dr. Scarlet is excited that Alice may be the key to a cure for the disease, Don now has some serious issues he has to directly confront. In zombie movies, one of the key tropes is, ‘how would you put a loved one out of their misery if you know they are infected and about to go full zombie.' One of the genius aspects of 28 Weeks Later is how it turns this around, and makes Don confront his cowardice and betrayal, to both his children, and the woman he failed to protect, precisely because she doesn't go full zombie.
While Alice is in still in quarantine, Don uses his fabled all-access pass to have a very private, personal moment. The scene is loaded, acting-wise, in ways that few (possibly no other) zombie movies have ever attempted. He tries to articulate his failure. She communicates a difficult position of vindictiveness and possible forgiveness. She is hard to read, and has every right to be this way.
They kiss to make up, or is it revenge? Does she know that she is Typhoid Mary? (The original Mary did not, medical science being what it was in 1901.) Does she know she is putting her kids in peril? Is a toxic marriage the worst thing ever, and obliterates all other rational, even immediate, concerns?
To say the scene ends badly is an understatement beyond words: A graphic eye gouging, blood vomiting, and a new form of emotional betrayal culminate like a sexual climax here. It is profoundly, viscerally, effective. I cringed hard upon my original viewing. I cringed hard today. This is what a horror film can and should aspire to.
What follows is shocking, perhaps the most violently bloody film of recent years (suck it Evil Dead remake, Martyrs, or A Serbian Film). One that manages to balance the ongoing family drama with perhaps the worst quarantine protocol every devised by a military body.
Many people complain about the scene hoarding all the civilians into an underground parking-lot and simply having them wait. It really creates a one-step containment abattoir, but this is not far off the various Baghdad compound and military prisons in Gulf War II, or American sniper drill protocols.
There is no arguing the effectiveness of this as a scene of chaos in a movie, however. Optical step-printing, unexposed darkness and extreme camera motion are used to impressive and immersive effect.
The moment that someone is infected and on the loose, Elba’s General is resigned to the fact that everyone non-military is to be executed via the ‘Code-Red’ protocol. Shifting gears for a third time, having all the principals established in compelling ways, the film becomes practically non-stop series of explosive and tense action sequences which last the remainder of the film. The use of old-school day-for-night photography is truly spectacular to behold.
Doyle (Renner) abandons his sharp-shooter post as he is given orders to shot anything that moves, mainly panicked civilians. Scarlet knows the value of these children and wants to save them at all costs, despite the risks. As Don and Alice exit the picture, a new pair of foster parents take over stewardship of the children in an attempt to get them out of a city that is under fire from both the infected and extreme military containment.
A stunner of an urban fire-scorch and a haunting white fog of poison gas makes the military complex a far greater killer than the new horde of rage infected super-zombies. Look for a further nod to Romero's underseen The Crazies, which also saw military protocol gone amuck, and men in hazmat suits with flame-throwers gone wild.
The collapse of months’ worth of rebuilding effort is short and terrible. How fragile things are.
Fresnadillo uses various images of Lord Nelson, a statue here, graffiti there, overlooking the US destruction of Britain’s greatest city, one that actually survived the first outbreak, but is a smoking wreck as a result of military policy. A decrepit merry-go-round, featuring Royal family members through the ages, further underscores the tragedy as farce, with a rare comic wink, albeit this is immediately punctuated with the shredding of a hundred odd citizens in a spectacular fashion by spinning helicopter blades.
28 Weeks Later lays waste to the hubris of man coming in to shape a place still fresh from upheaval. It lays waste to the notion that a disease can easily be stamped out, and that quarantines although necessary, often offer ludicrous notions of perceived safety. It keeps a morbid focus on the failed family unit perched on the edge of the abyss, and still struggling with past failure. Robert Carlyle infected father shows up here and there during the race to the helicopter, usually observed by his son. He is more a ghost, an infected ghost, of familial dysfunction. This does not stop him from tearing Scarlet to pieces.
This film is a nasty itch that one can’t help but scratch.
There was a promise of a second sequel via a DV shot epilogue in set in Paris. 28 Months Later has been in limbo for a decade, despite producers Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's off again on again mention of another one. There is a script and it is inching forward. In the case of a possibly trilogy, 28 Weeks Later, is in the rarefied air of supreme quality middle chapters occupied by The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As it stands, it is the best the genre has had to offer in the past 10 years or more.