28 Days Later is a modern horror classic. Often mistakenly referenced as the origin of fast zombies (Return of the Living Dead had a seventeen year head start), it is still highly influential, well made, and most importantly, scarier than a crotchless clown suit. It’s also extremely famous, which disqualifies it from Now Fear This status. Its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, has flown largely under the radar. Not without reason; it’s pretty far from a perfect film, but it deserves a look. And not just because I compulsively recommend everything Rose Byrne is in.
Before I get into the movie, I have a quick digression. One of my favorite random places to see horror movies is the AMC in Old Town Pasadena. The reason for this is because the theater is apparently located directly on top of a portal to hell. The building itself is a appears to be nothing more an a ticket kiosk tucked away underneath a restaurant with a couple escalators that descend into the earth’s mantle. Take these escalators, pass Orpheus coming up the other way, yammering on his cell phone, and find the theater proper. When big horror movies come out, I like to go to the Old Town AMC, if only to imagine that demons are cavorting just beyond the walls, slow roasting the genitalia of blasphemers and people who wear cotton/poly blends.
In the middle of a weekday, I sat down in a largely empty auditorium, ready to enjoy 28 Weeks Later, assuming it would feature the same tricks that made its predecessor so successful: gritty you-are-there cinematography, a pulsing score, and periods of near silence punctuated with screaming and cursing. Now, why should I bring this up? Because right before the film started, a family of four wandered in, including one kindergartener and one infant. While I understand that babies are huge fans of faux-newsreel camera work, they are not fond of sudden loud noises. Predictably, the baby burst into hysterical tears at the first zombie attack. The five year old was fine, at least until he had his first nightmare which would have been roughly eight hours later. I’d complain about parenting technique, but hey, that’s how you make horror writers. Thanks, dad!
Unfortunately, the opening scene is the best one in the film. It’s a fairly sizable flaw, but that first scene is worth watching, especially if you know enough not to be let down by the rest. The film opens in what appears to be the dead of night, with a couple making dinner. Don (Robert Carlyle) and Alice Harris (the perpetually doomed-and-beautiful Catherine McCormack) speak in hushed tones about their children who are on a school trip abroad. This farmhouse hides an ersatz family of survivors existing under the pall of outliving the apocalypse. They’ve adapted to the new brutal order by turtling up and hoping the roving bands of cannibal maniacs infesting the countryside don’t notice. Their resolve is immediately tested when they hear frantic pounding on the door and the voice of a little boy calling for help.
Alice is the only one who reflexively gets up to help. Don only assists when it’s obvious that Alice is going – she has held onto her humanity, while Don fights to shed the last vestiges of his. They open the door to blinding light. It’s the middle of the day outside, but the people hiding within exist in perpetual night. Of course, this immediately leads to a horde of rage zombies smashing their way in, biting and infecting every breathing person in sight. In the frantic escape, Alice is trapped trying to save the boy presenting Don with a choice: try to save his wife and this child and probably die in the process or run. Don chooses to run. It’s a stark, haunting choice. It’s one we all hope that we would fall on the other side of, but until we are actually in a comparable situation. We hope we would be Paul Rusesabagina but we’d probably be Don Harris. Overcoming four billion years of evolution is not easy. If it was, we’d all have wings and laser vision.
The film then switches gears, and we run into the major problem. Much like The Phantom Menace, 28 Weeks Later does not really have a protagonist. It begins as Don’s film, then gets turned over to his children Tammy and Andy (Played by Harry Potter characters Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. Yes, those are what pass for names in Britain), then hijacked by US Army doctor Scarlet (personal favorite Rose Byrne), then given to Army sniper Doyle (Jeremy Renner), and finally returned to Tammy and Andy. Attrition rates are high in zombie films, but we still need someone at the center, usually an overmatched but resourceful everyman. Had the film picked one of its characters and ran with it, it would have worked fine. Don working for redemption, Tammy trying to be a mother to her little brother, Scarlet sacrificing herself for a potential cure or Doyle the killer reluctantly becoming Doyle the protector are all solid throughlines for protagonists. The film gives these to us in fitful starts, but it’s never enough to get involved with our heroes. No one wants to see children devoured by zombies (except perhaps as a warning to other children that movies are quiet time), so we are invested in Tammy and Andy not becoming infected poop, but the entire movie feels lacking.
The first film was so successful partly because of how real it felt. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland researched social unrest while writing 28 Days Later. It shows in the scene in the corpse-stuffed church, the shot of Jim picking up the fallen money, and especially in the notice board at Piccadilly Circus (so real that people protested it for being too true to what happened after 9/11, despite being shot before that day). The sequel is most successful when it hews closest to this, such as in the opening scene in the farmhouse, the shots of haunting messages on rooftops to rescuers that never came, and the journey through abandoned London. Particularly impressive is the house where Alice has hidden herself busy with the task of going insane. Alice is a carrier of infection, but she shows no symptoms herself, something that makes her both valuable and dangerous. While London rots around her, she eats maggot-ridden food and scrawls crosses and the names of her children on the wall as wards. The rest of the movie features solid action and a few very tense scenes, but it rarely captures the magic of the first.
This is probably the most lukewarm recommendation I’ve given for a Now Fear This feature. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a waste of time. It’s a solid zombie film, the pizza of the movie world (as in, how bad can it be, it’s got zombies). It suffers a bit only because it’s the sequel of a truly great movie. Forget the great movie for ninety minutes and enjoy this one.