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Saturday 12 May 2007

Movie Review of 28 Weeks Later

by John Shirley

Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

Screenwriters Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Enrique López Lavigne, Jesús Olmo

Starring Jeremy Renner, Robert Carlyle, Idris Elba, Catherine McCormack, Imogen Poots, Harold Perrineau, Mackintosh Muggleton

Say they're not zombies. They don't shamble, they run, and they don't eat your brains and they're not exactly "living dead"; in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and in its new sequel, 28 Weeks Later, they are, instead, people instantaneously infected by the "rage" virus that makes you an uncontrollable killer. But in many respects they seem much like the living dead: they're former humans who've been transformed into the inhuman by a bite, they tear relentlessly at your doors and windows and come at you without cessation unless you kill them; and they don't attack one another, they attack the uninfected. If they're not zombies, the terrifying victims of rage in 28 Weeks Later are at least a close relative to the living dead who shamble and rend in movies like Dawn of the Dead.

Nearly everyone in any given movie theater — or anyone who hasn't had their brains eaten in some other sense — has wondered at some point what the relentlessly murderous living dead of cinema symbolize to us. The best guess is, Romero's living dead represent death itself. They're corpses, coming from graves, to make you a corpse too. We're afraid to see corpses because they speak mutely to us of our death. When they come after you, they're quite aggressively reminding you of the stalking, inexorable onrush of mortality.

Danny Boyle's mindlessly murderous viral victims have a plug-in handiness for any symbolism you like. If you're scared of corpses and death itself, that's what they are. But if you're more afraid of AIDS, and other frightening modern diseases — ebola, West Nile virus, biowarfare — then the horrors in the Boyle/Fresnadillo films lock right into your special fears (especially fear of AIDS, in 28 Weeks Later, since the new outbreak starts with physical intimacy). If you're afraid of irresponsible scientists, or military dictatorship, then they're a manifestation of that — fits right in with the plots of the two films. If you're afraid of terrorists, then they symbolize terrorists for you, especially because terrorists seem suffused with an enigmatic rage; terrorists kill for reasons we can't comprehend. Who but terrorists themselves really understand blowing up a school full of children for "religious" or "political" reasons? If you're afraid of psychokillers or home intruders, you can plug that fear, too, into 28 Weeks Later. Maybe the key is, in our age, we're afraid of all those things...

There are plans for a third film, 28 Months Later. In the first film of the cycle, 28 Days Later, chimpanzees in a British laboratory are interfered with by animal rights activists causing a virus to be released into the population, the rage virus spread by blood and saliva, and those fluids are spread around a great deal by the murderous quasi-zombies who rush full-tilt through city after city. Boyle ratcheted zombie terror up a notch when he made them speedy. They're like the Olympic sprinters of hands-on murder. Pretty much no one gets away. In the sequel, 28 Weeks Later — directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the young Spanish director who won an Oscar for a short film and the Goya award for his thriller Intacto — Robert Carlyle, as "Don", is among the last few survivors, who abandons his wife when the rage monsters come after her, and, in a harrowing opening scene, escapes alone...

28 weeks later, the infected have died of starvation, and the country is being reclaimed by American troops. Everyone in England is dead, you see. So America comes to set the UK on its feet again, repatriating a large handful of British. Don is running a sequestered community that hopes to rebuild Britain, on the Isle of Dogs, in London, a place quarantined by American troops armed with sniper rifles. The rage monsters are now dead so it's all extra precaution, nothing left to fear. That, of course, is a misapprehension. Don's kids, who'd been out of the country during the outbreak, come back to be with him and stupidly slip out of the quarantine to find out what became of their mother. They come across her, and she's alive...

I can't discuss anymore plot points without spoiling the film's little surprises. The main thrust, of course, is that the disease is spread through the quarantined area, and the American soldiers are forced to start shooting indiscriminately. They must kill all the civilians — for the protection of civilians. Our young heroes, Andy and Tammy, affectingly played by Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots (they sound like made-up names, but they're not), have to escape from the military as well as the rage monsters.

Back in real life — this is real, this is not in the movie — yesterday's newspaper reported that, "Senior government and military officials and other experts, organized by a joint Stanford-Harvard program called the Preventive Defense Project, met behind closed doors in Washington. The session, called 'The Day After,' [also the name of an apocalyptic horror film] was premised on the idea that a collapse of government order" was likely in the event of terrorists exploding a significant nuclear weapon in an American city. "Fred Ikle, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration said that the government should plan how it could restrict civil liberties and enforce a sort of martial law in the aftermath of a nuclear attack."

That's our world — the world that spawned 28 Weeks Later. Like another recent post-apocalyptic science-fiction film, Children of Men — a film with similar tone, similar political satire — 28 Weeks Later assumes that the authorities are as dangerous as the monsters. The monsters represent unbottled emotion; the authorities represent cold, unmodulated logic. Martial law — and, by extension, measures like the Patriot Act — are as terrifying as sprinting zombies. And it's no accident that the auxiliary bad guys in 28 Weeks Later are Americans. Clearly, in the minds of these European film makers, they're George Bush Americans.

Both films are shot largely on high quality video, with some scenes in 35 mm; and somehow they work better for the video element. The films don't look cheap for the video, but take on newsy immediacy for it. The moments of hyper-intense assault, all-out violence, might be confusing with lesser film makers; both Boyle and Fresnadillo are up to the necessary surgery, their editing scalpels are exquisitely sharp, and in images lasting split seconds we understand perfectly well what's going down — we comprehend all too well.

A particularly unnerving scene is set in a blacked out subway passage cluttered with rotting bodies. A military medical scientist, Scarlett (Rose Byrne), looks through an infrared sniper-rifle scope to keep track of her two frightened young charges, and as this militarily-equipped tunnel-vision creeps horribly onward we feel genuinely transported to its claustrophobic dark passage. Fresnadillo here explores a new channel of cinematic subjectivity that will be discussed by film fans like Hitchcock's most frightening scenes from The Birds.

With its bigger scale (and bigger budget), its excellent soundtrack by the band Muse, its use of sinister military action, firebombing and nerve-gassing, the movie could have gotten away from young Fresnadillo, but he displays an effortless mastery of the vocabulary of action cinema. It works like a well-oiled assault rifle.

If anything, 28 Weeks Later is an even more effective movie than 28 Days Later. But make no mistake, this is a bruising film. Your pulse will pound just as much as you hope it will, and more — but this movie will kick you around some, too.

Political satire is in evidence in 28 Weeks Later, but sometimes we suspect that the ultimate subtext of both films is despair. In the first film people trying to do good — to rescue tormented animals — unleash a horror on the world; in the second film an effort to reclaim England, and every attempt to show mercy and compassion ends with only making things worse. We notice that the rage monsters don't attack one another — they're enraged by those who are not enraged. They only attack the innocent. If you're a bystander, they hate you and want to kill you. Are the filmmakers expressing the feeling that we all struggle to suppress, that the terrors of the world are out to get the innocent; that they are inarguable, that every effort to mitigate them only makes them worse? See 28 Weeks Later to its unsettling end, and decide for yourself.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.