28 Weeks Later (2007) ***½
This movie really snuck up on me. I see so few movies in the theater these days that I rarely encounter trailers, and because I watch almost no broadcast television, I see very few TV commercials, either. As a consequence, by the time I learned that a sequel to 28 Days Later… was in the offing, the film reels were probably actually on the shipping pallets, awaiting transport to the theaters. There was no time for me to have its storyline given away, no time for me to learn that Danny Boyle, who directed the original movie, was only minimally involved with the sequel, no time to become disheartened by the possible implications of that development. All I knew was that there was going to be a sequel to a film that I really, really enjoyed. And it pleases me to report that I really, really enjoyed 28 Weeks Later as well.
We actually begin before the main action of the preceding film. Shortly after the release of the rage virus from the laboratory where it was developed, a man named Don (Robert Carlyle, from Ravenous and Eragon) has fled with his wife to a village out in the London hinterland, where the two of them have holed up in a sturdy-looking farmhouse with an elderly couple and several of their neighbors. Don and his wife, presumably, slipped through the cracks during city’s formal evacuation, but their children were successfully spirited away to safety in a refugee camp on the Continent. As for them and their fellow domestically-situated refugees, they seem to be making a pretty fair go of it— until the day when a boy on the run from the Infected inadvertently leads a whole pack of the diseased killers straight to the old couple’s farm. The place is overrun within minutes, and Don faces an agonizing choice when he, his wife, and the child who brought on the attack in the first place become cornered in a second-story room by the advancing Infected. Don has his back to a window through which he could easily escape, but his wife is on the other side of the room; including her in the getaway would mean fighting his way through a gang of zombies, and the prospects for success look very close to nil. Don elects to save his own skin, and though he is successful in fleeing the farm, his conscience is going to be bothering him for a long, long time about the way he abandoned his wife to her fate.
As I said, that was sometime between the beginning of the outbreak and Jim the bike courier’s emergence from his month-long coma 28 days later, by which point Great Britain had effectively ceased to exist as a social or political entity. However, because those infected by the rage virus apparently lose all appetite for food once the disease has its hooks in them, it didn’t take long— about five weeks after the nation’s final collapse— for all of the zombies to starve to death. After another six weeks, a NATO expeditionary force landed in Britain to reconnoiter, and by the 24th week after the first outbreak, the situation on the island looked stable enough for reconstruction to have a chance of success. As of Z-Day plus 28 weeks, some 15,000 Brits have been repatriated to an enclave on the Isle of Dogs, under massive military protection from a NATO force commanded by General Stone (Idris Elba, from Prom Night and The Unborn) of the United States Army. And as for Don, he’s now the civilian building superintendent for the Green Zone’s primary housing complex. He’s also awaiting the arrival of his kids, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), on the next flight in. On the one hand, that means he’ll be reunited with what’s left of his family for the first time in about half a year. On the other, it means he’s going to have to explain what happened to Mom, and Don isn’t looking forward to that conversation at all.
The head of General Stone’s medical department, a major by the name of Scarlet (Rose Byrne, from Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones), is not happy when she learns that there are children among the latest planeload of returning refugees. There’s still a lot of rebuilding to do, the city outside the Green Zone is littered with corpses and infested with rats and feral dogs, and in general, London right now is no place to bring a child. And as Tammy and Andy demonstrate almost immediately, children are a huge security risk. One night, Andy laments to his sister about how he doesn’t even have a photograph of their mother to help him fix her face in his memory. In point of fact, this is an easy enough problem to solve. The family’s old house is right there in London, so the only thing stopping Andy from swinging by to collect as many old snapshots as he can carry is a bunch of grownups hell-bent on enforcing a bunch of stupid rules. (Well, I’m sure they sound stupid if you’re twelve or fifteen years old…) Let’s just say that whenever Tammy starts dating, she’s going to have no trouble at all sneaking out of the house after curfew to meet up with that boy her dad has forbidden her to see. The two kids are well on their way into town before Sergeant Doyle (Jeremy Renner, who played the title role in Dahmer), one of the soldiers charged with guarding the Green Zone, spots them and puts a tail on them. That squad, led by a helicopter pilot named Flynn (Harold Perrineau, of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions), does eventually catch up to the escapees, but not until they have reached their old house and made a truly shocking discovery. Their mother is still alive after all!
Something even more shocking comes to light when Scarlet gets a chance to look the woman over. It turns out she didn’t escape unscathed from the farmhouse, for her arm is marked by a deep scar from an obviously human bite. Now that ought to have turned her into a bloodthirsty zombie, since the rage virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids, but the only outward sign of infection she shows is an inflammation in the conjunctiva of her left eye. (In the truly Infected, these become so swollen that their entire eyes appear red and bloody, all the way in toward the pupil.) Examination of the woman’s blood reveals that her system is positively loaded with the virus, and yet it doesn’t seem to be causing her any ill effects. This is an incredibly important discovery, but Scarlet and General Stone draw very different conclusions from it. Scarlet, a doctor first and foremost, becomes eager to study the new arrival in exhaustive depth, in the hope of learning whatever trick her body knows that keeps the disease asymptomatic. Jones, focusing on his duty to safeguard both the soldiers under his command and the 15,000 civilians on the Isle of Dogs, concludes that the woman must be killed immediately, before she has a chance to spread the infection to anyone without her mysterious natural immunity. Unfortunately, Don moves faster than either one of the officers. Eager to make amends for leaving his wife to die, he uses his all-access passkey to let himself into the quarantine lab after-hours, and promptly does something that will ultimately unleash a catastrophe beside which the first rage outbreak looks like a minor annoyance.
Doubtless I’m not the first one to make this observation, but there is a sense in which 28 Weeks Later is a lot like Aliens. Alien and 28 Days Later… alike were extremely potent horror films by rising-star directors, that breathed new life into genres which had mostly lain fallow for the better part of a decade, and in both cases, the sequels were entrusted to a filmmaker with only a few movies to his credit, who continued the story by emphasizing action over suspense. And more to the point, writer/director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is nearly as successful as James Cameron was at matching the original movie’s effectiveness despite pushing the franchise to the very frontier of a different genre. It’s possible to object to a few things here and there in 28 Weeks Later. For instance, it’s awfully strange that there is no sign of British authority figures, either military or civilian, in the effort to rebuild and repopulate London, and there’s a scene involving Flynn’s helicopter and a pack of zombies that rings the bullshit alarm with great stridency. Also, 28 Weeks Later feels, on the whole, a bit less original than its predecessor because of the extent to which it seems to borrow from George Romero’s The Crazies (although the uses to which Fresnadillo puts the lifted material are very different from Romero’s). But this is still an extraordinarily successful follow-up, displaying a great deal of thought invested in how best and most sensibly to continue the story. Most remarkably, it achieves its success despite reusing not a single member of the 28 Days Later… cast, nor taking up any of its predecessor’s plot threads outside of the initial setup. The secret, I think, lies in the movie’s unflinching honesty. All of its characters face a lot of hard choices, and the answers they arrive at are always defensible no matter how disastrous the outcome. Furthermore, there is no easy correlation to be drawn between the likeability of a given character and the rightness or success of his or her actions. The very sympathetic Don starts the movie off by failing a test of courage that few people in the real world could honestly be expected to pass, and winds up playing the key role in the resurrection of the rage virus. Meanwhile, even General Stone’s most shockingly callous actions have an incontestably legitimate basis in the need to contain the second rage outbreak, whatever the cost. Finally, Scarlet, who is otherwise the most impeccably competent character in the entire film, is led by her optimistic temperament into an error as fundamental— and as deadly— as Ben’s dismissal of the cellar in Night of the Living Dead. This is a film in which well-intentioned people get things wrong despite their best efforts, and in which the ones who must pay most dearly for those mistakes are not necessarily the ones who make them.