28 Sequels Later… Or How I Learned to Resubscribe to Netflix

May 14, 2007

When 28 Days Later opened in 2002, it was the scariest movie I had seen in years. In the film, a small group of survivors navigate through an England, which has been devastated by the “rage virus” (imagine a cross between rabies and ebola). The virus has killed off most of the population, and the remainder of those infected have turned into bloodthirsty zombies. Shot on a shoestring budget and in digital video, the film successfully conveyed London and the English countryside as eerily desolate… but liable to erupt into horrible violence at any moment. I left the theater scared out of my wits (the film is much less scary on the small screen), and when I left for Germany soon afterward to visit relatives, many of whom live in quaint little villages, I was on edge the entire time, expecting a horde of the infected to rush over the next hill the second I turned my back.

Thus, I awaited its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, with excitement and, well, glee. Unfortunately, as with most sequels, the result was simply a coarser rehashing of the original.

As the title suggests, the film takes place months after the initial outbreak of the virus. Given the rapid collapse of English society and the proliferation of the virus within the confines of the island, however, the infected quickly ran out of potential victims and slowly starved to death. Seeking to alleviate the refugee problem, the U.S. Army begins to clear and quarantine sections of London, aiming to gradually repatriate the surviving English population. As one might imagine for a zombie/horror film, this quickly becomes a fraught enterprise.

At first blush, this might sound like a good premise for a follow-up to 28 Days Later. The earlier film featured some fairly interesting discussions about the nature of civilization and humanity amidst its scenes of suspense and carnage, such as when an army sergeant interrupts his comrades’ discussion of how the (man-made) virus is bringing on an “unnatural state of things” by retorting that within the history of life on Earth, human civilization is what is really alien (he is met with some uncomfortable silence). So too, in 28 Days Later, the main protagonist manages to defeat a hostile group of survivors, but only by acting as savagely as the infected do, such that his friends can no longer tell that he is human. Eschewing such soul-searching, 28 Weeks Later settles for a blunt analogy between the Army’s recolonization effort and the Iraq war (e.g. the main resettled area is known as the “green zone”).

The analogy might have been more effective if it weren’t nearly so ham-handed. While I never thought I would ever argue for the competency of the American occupation of Iraq, I’m pretty sure that our troops’ marching orders don’t include liquidating the country’s civilian population in the event that things go awry.

Even as an action movie, 28 Weeks Later doesn’t have much on the original. The digital video used in the original was great at conveying the frightening speed of the infected, but in the sequel, much of the camera work is just frenetic and jerky (and it included some magnificent action shots… such as when a mass of rats run right by the survivors, only for them to realize that the rats are running from a horde of the infected). The original also showed London in washed out, sun-drenched tones, making even the nicest blocks of the city look harsh and unsettling. 28 Weeks Later simply enlarges the scope; its characters run past most of the city’s landmarks as if they were following Fodor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic London.

The characters in 28 Days Later were fairly well-developed, and even its most loathsome characters had a believable rationale for acting as they did. 28 Weeks Later‘s characters are written in shorthand, and while the actors who play the four principle characters — two children (who may have a genetic immunity to the virus) and a pair soldiers who try to rescue them when the outbreak begins — are quite convincing, the characters themselves are sympathetic but remain essentially undeveloped. Of course, what little development the soldiers do have comes right before each of them dies horribly.

And die horribly they do! Where 28 Days Later implied much of its worst violence (e.g. someone having their eyes put out) by rapidly cutting away to the character doing the violence, 28 Weeks Later does one better and lets us see things all the way through. Necks are torn open, the infected are decapitated, the children’s mother has her eyes gouged in, and the two soldiers die in quick, bloody succession — one is lit on fire by other American troops, and the other (Rose Byrne) is bludgeoned to death by one of the infected with her own rifle. Call me old-fashioned, but I really didn’t fork over eleven dollars to watch a minute-long sequence of Ms. Byrne’s character getting smacked repeatedly in the face (by Robert Carlyle, no less!) from the perspective of her rifle’s night-vision scope.

And while the bleak ending has been best criticized by Slate’s Grady Hendrix, I can safely say that I’ll stay scared… for how awful the next one will be.

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