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28 Weeks Later, zombies still rule the world

by Jordan Green

I don’t want to say I love zombies more than anything, but I do love them more than most things.

The past few years have been quite good to people like me: The mere existence of something called The Zombie Survival Guide, which you can pick up at any Barnes & Noble, is proof positive that the lumbering hordes are enjoying a reniassance the likes of which they haven’t seen since George Romero took them shopping in Dawn of the Dead.

You can tell the flesh-chomping population is enjoying it, too – in the past five years, they’ve even started participating in team sports like swimming (in Romero’s Land of the Dead) and running (in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).

As further evidence of their superiority in the realm of horror, they’re now the stars of a sequel to the latter film which is every bit as shocking and excellent as its predecessor. Really, how often does that happen?

Before we move on: I know the monsters in 28 Days Later aren’t “zombies” in the traditional sense, but please, spare me. That’s like saying Teen Wolf wasn’t really a werewolf because werewolves don’t play basketball. If it grunts and howls, travels in a pack, walks upright and eats people, it’s a zombie. Outside of those parameters, you have to allow the genre room to grow.

And these zombies are particularly nasty. If you haven’t seen the first film, the premise is simple: Modern-day England falls prey to an outbreak of a virus called Rage, which turns the infected, irrevocably, into red-eyed, blood-spurting cannibals. 28 Days Later followed a group of survivors seeking asylum in a countryside swarming with the monsters.

28 Weeks Later, after a pulse-pounding exposition, takes up… well, 28 weeks later, informing the viewer that the infected population starved to death within five weeks of the original outbreak. An American-led NATO force has set up a Green Zone in London, and though no more infected are believed to exist, officials are still exercising extreme caution as they bring survivors back to the shambles of their native country.

A resurgence of the virus leads to a Code Red order, once again leaving civilians to fight for survival against man and zombie alike.

28 Weeks Later has a few additional challenges to overcome: The star of the original film, Cillian Murphy, is nowhere to be found, and Boyle has vacated the director’s chair (though he retains an executive producer credit). Its biggest stars are Harold Perrinau and Robert Carlyle, two great actors who, nevertheless, can probably still do their own grocery shopping without too much bother. And the director who took Boyle’s place is relative unknown Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.

After this film, however, he probably won’t stay unknown. Indeed, Fresnadillo proves himself adept at pacing and dramatic tension, grabbing the viewer by the throat in the first five minutes and keeping him in a stranglehold for the duration.

A new director is only the first of the film’s supposed detriments that end up working in its favor. The fact that there are no major Hollywood stars means there aren’t really any leading men or women here. That gives the film a sense of urgency as it quickly establishes that anyone can die at any time, which is really the essence of any great horror film.

As for the plentiful action scenes, I’m a little torn. The film is shot with liberal use of Steadicam, a powerful tool that mimics an eyewitness perspective. It can make the viewer feel like he’s right there in the thick of the action (see Michael Mann’s Miami Vice). Unfortunately, it can also render a film unwatchable with its perpetual, unpleasant shaking (if you got motion sickness during The Blair Witch Project, you won’t fare well at 28 Weeks Later).

Simply put, it’s a good way to establish atmosphere, and a bad way to further a story. At the end of the film, you’ll know what it’s like to run from a zombie while dodging rooftop sniper fire, but you won’t immediately know what’s happening to these specific characters, who are often lost in the choppy, red-tinted chaos.

But since I’m suspicious of zero-tolerance policies in general, I’ll step out of character here and give 28 Weeks Later a pass, because I see what Fresnadillo is trying to do, and he’s actually quite successful at it. The crucial element carried over from the first film is its sense of realism, and I don’t think I’m crazy when I say the broken London of the film is just as piercing as it was in last year’s Children of Men.

And that, friends, is why I love zombies. They play just as well in the art house as they do in the multiplex. They can make you laugh, cry, empathize and scream, often in the same film. At their best, they retain some of their humanity, as they do here, and they always keep you guessing. 28 Weeks Later isn’t perfect, but it’s a great entry to one of the only horror subgenres that seems to be improving with age.

Congratulate Glen Baity on his keen understanding of Teen Wolf when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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