Sunday, May 18, 2008

Welcome to the occupation: the zombie insurgency of 28 Weeks Later


In a dark house in the English countryside where all of the windows have been blocked, Don (Robert Carlyle) comforts his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) about the safety of their children who have been quarantined off the British coast. Soon an older couple and a young woman arrive to eat with them, but then they hear a small boy knocking at the door and begging to be let in. Suddenly fearful, they reluctantly open the door for him. As he devours his share of noodles, he mentions how the infected have followed him. The wife goes to look out of peep hole at the farm land around them, but then a creature with red haggard eyes abruptly blocks the view, crashes in the window, and grabs her by the head. Before one even knows what is happening, most of the group have been attacked and bitten by zombies. Agonized, the husband has to abandon his wife and the child upstairs, and he runs across a field chased by a group of the creatures at top speeds as they zero in on him.

Welcome to the world of 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s highly successful 28 Days Later (2002). Steeped in the traditions of apocalyptic zombie films like Omega Man and Day of the Dead, both films concern a rage virus that arbitrarily takes over England, killing off most everyone within a month. The infected are not technically zombies at all, since they are not the undead, but once taken over by the highly contagious plague, they have to kill everyone they see in a sustained rage. Compared to the old days when zombies lurched around the streets slowly with their arms extended, these new infected move very quickly, and sometimes in very large packs.

As implied by the title, 28 Weeks Later is set six months after the original outbreak. Most of the regular population has died off and the zombies have largely died of starvation, so a US-led NATO force has decided to begin repopulating the country by securing the Isle of Dogs on a peninsula of the East End of London as the “Green Zone,” and flying 15,000 civilians back in.

After the opening horror sequence in the British countryside, the film cuts to the point of view of Don’s children--a 12 year old kid named Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and his teenage sister Tammy (Imogen Poots) as they arrive in the Green Zone and try to adjust to the heavy surveillance, the checkpoints, the snipers who stand guard over them, and the soon-to-be-ironic announcements like the “US Army is responsible for your safety.” Andy and Tammy reunite with their father, who has difficulty explaining what happened to their mother back in the farmhouse at the beginning of the film. Then, almost whimsically, the two youngsters sneak out of the secure zone into the deserted London streets where cars lie overturned. Tammy shows unusual chutzpah by walking into a pub, covering her nose from the stench, and gingerly lifting some scooter keys from the pocket of a decomposed corpse lying by the bar, and they go joy-riding around the deserted city.

Needless to say, things start to go wrong with the American occupation. The generals maintain that there will be no new outbreak of the virus, so they have no good options when a zombie runs amuck again. The film asks the queasy question—would you like to be guarded by military snipers when a security zone becomes breeched? With cinematography that suggests documentary realism, 28 Weeks Later juxtaposes the war on zombies with the actual war on terror, so the film acquires an unexpected political edginess amidst all of the horror tactics. As shot by the young Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (the maker of Intacto), the film occasionally loses its subtlety to scenes of excessive blood and gore, but much of the time I had no trouble accepting the plausibility of the storyline.

At times reminiscent of Children of Men, 28 Weeks Later is one of the best horror sequels since Aliens. Imagine descending into a pitch-black London subway with nothing but the night-vision of a sniper rifle to guide you and two totally blind kids screaming for directions, stumbling, and then falling down the corpse-lined escalators. Mind the gap.

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