Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later isn’t as fresh as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later … (2002), nor does it have the quirky humor that punctuated Boyle’s film. It’s also minus the kind of charismatic actors—Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns—that populated the original. Moreover, it lacks the personalized climax that raised 28 Days Later … to something like “instant classic” status. All that to one side, 28 Weeks Later is a very good picture that occasionally flirts with greatness, and is easily the best horror movie in years. It’s splattery horror that has brains as well as flying viscera.
Fresnadillo and fellow screenwriters Rowan Joffe, Jesus Olmo and E.L. Lavigne have hit upon a perfectly reasonable manner for restarting the “rage virus” that turned most of Great Britain into highly antisocial flesh-eating “zombies” and the remaining uninfected populace into box lunches on legs. At the end of the first film, something like normalcy was being restored since the infected had simply run out of food and had largely starved to death. To set up the sequel, Fresnadillo and company back the story up to the waning days of the original disaster, introducing us to a small band of uninfected survivors holed up in a farmhouse (something like a more civilized version of the folks in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)).
Central to this group are Alice (Catherine McCormack, The Tailor of Panama) and Don (Robert Carlyle, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands), a seemingly doting couple who are hoping one day to rejoin their children who were out of the country on a school trip when the outbreak started. Things quickly go awry, though, when an uninfected boy (Beans El-Balawi, Seed of Chucky) shows up. Letting him in proves to be a bad idea, because the infected are chasing him and his presence draws attention to the house, which is soon beset with the infected. Don cuts his losses and runs, ultimately escaping by motorboat, leaving Alice to her fate at the hands of the marauding infected. This opening is perhaps the most effective piece of filmmaking in the entire movie—a curse as well as a blessing because you wait for Fresnadillo to top it and he never quite does.
All too often the use of shaky-cam-work action scenes done in a jumble of incomprehensible close-shots complete with a riot of editing (you can’t tell what’s going on, but it’s so frenzied you just know it must be very thrilling indeed), is nothing but a crutch for filmmakers without a clue how to direct action scenes. That’s not the case here (though it feels like it in some later action set pieces), because Fresnadillo mixes this approach with perfectly lucid action. He uses the frenetic approach only to convey the confusion and terror of what’s going on, and punctuates it all with some very precise editing: There’s the hauntingly horrific image of Alice at a window watching in disbelief as Don saves his own skin.
After the sequence of Don’s escape, the film moves forward to the present with U.S. forces in charge of trying to rebuild the devastated country. Yes, the film is more than a little political in nature, as becomes quickly apparent when rooftop snipers play Peeping Tom on the people they’re protecting by watching them through the night scopes on their rifles—a grim foreshadowing of things to come. Don—who has become one of the Brits helping to put London back to rights—is reunited with his children, Tammy (Imogen Poots, V for Vendetta) and Andy (newcomer Mackintosh Muggleton). Don has sold them a bill of goods about their mother’s death—a story that comes back to haunt him when it turns out that Alice isn’t dead after all. Without giving too much away, I can safely say that it would have been better for all concerned—and I do mean all—if she had been. Her reappearance propels the plot toward the inevitable abyss of Fresnadillo’s vision.
There’s an air of futility and grimness (similar in some ways to Alfonso Cuarón’s less nihilistic Children of Men) hanging over the entire film, which constantly depicts any act of humanity or kindness (starting with letting the kid into the farmhouse) as a bad idea. It’s a determinedly bleak vision that never lets up. The political allegory moves from the false sense of being in control (or “mission accomplished”), to wrong-headed attempts to contain a bad situation, to outright wholesale death and destruction—a “shoot anything that moves” mentality that is topped off with firebombing London and unleashing poisonous gas. It’s pronounced and disturbing, as is the depiction of the destruction of the family unit.
The film, however, is smart enough not to skimp on the horror elements—even though the most horrifying thing in the film is probably the wholesale slaughter and the firebombing (as with Boyle’s film, human horror is even worse than zombie horror)—and most of the horror elements work. Fresnadillo does botch (after brilliantly setting it up) the scene in which the infection begins anew by presenting it too much in the shaky-cam/incoherent action mode. However, the overall final sequences work more often than not, and the visceral terror—and gore—is hardly in short supply. (If that sort of thing bothers you, consider yourself warned.) That the actual ending isn’t as strong as it ought to be is regrettable—and its tag scene that evokes a non-comedic variant on the ending of Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is too literal and too rushed. But these things aren’t enough to dispel the film’s overall grimly apocalyptic tone. Rated R for strong violence and gore, language and some sexuality/nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke