Wednesday, December 22, 2010

28 Weeks Later (Great Britain, 2007)

Way back in 2002, when some of you who are now wasting your life reading blogs like this were perhaps still reading Dick & Jane, the English maestro of style Danny Boyle helped reinvent the zombie film with the modern horror classic 28 Days Later (trailer). In the film, animal activists accidentally release "Rage", a fast-acting virus — we're talking in seconds — upon England that causes all those infected to turn into enraged killers. Technically, the fast-footed and crazed killers of the film are not zombies, as they are very much alive, but the single-minded urge to kill and eviscerate man that the virally infected of Boyle's film all share is analogous to the viral and hungry running dead as introduced two years later in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (trailer), a surprisingly excellent remake of George Romero's dated but still-great original from 1978 (trailer). (Fast and viral-crazed blood-thirsty maniacs that run were not unknown in horror before 28 Days Later, however, as the concept of a rage-like virus had already been explored by Romero in his other early low budget classic The Crazies [1973 / trailer] and unstoppable fast-moving home surgeons are found in Umberto Lenzi's entertaining exploiter Incubo sulla città contaminate / Nightmare City [1980 / trailer].)
Whether or not the infected of 28 Days Later are "real” zombies or not is an argument of tertiary importance to a few other facts: The film re-introduced and help popularize the contemporary concept of fast and enraged zombies that are the stronghold of today's zombie films, and the film is one fucking excellent and effective piece of filmmaking, marred only by an unbelievable happy ending. If you haven't seen it yet, you should. (The film's one major flaw, an unbelievable ending involving a non-fatal shot through the stomach [one of the most fatal kinds of shot wounds there are], is alleviated for those who prefer more believable endings by a believable and more-effective alternative ending on the DVD.)
That a sequel would follow was a given the minute that 28 Days Later made waves and money. And five years later, in 2007, the next film in the franchise finally hit the theatres. This time around Boyle sat back (but for some second-unit work) and simply joined his regular producer Andrew Macdonald on the sidelines, leaving the new film in the hands of the relatively unknown Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, a man with (at the time) only one full-length feature film credit to his name, the stylistically assured and interesting if overly artsy Intacto (2001 / trailer). The film Fresnadillo delivered to Boyle & Macdonald, 28 Weeks Later, proved almost as successful with the critics as the first, and likewise raked in the money, so it is hardly unexpected that 28 Months Later has long been announced as in production.
Good reviews and box office receipts aside, the real question is whether 28 Weeks Later is a good film. And, yes, it is — but it is not the great film that everyone seems to think it is. Without a doubt the opening scene is excellent if not a masterpiece of terror, and the final scene is at least a truly logical conclusion to the events, but that which is in between, as well shot as it sometimes is, too often falls into the realm of let's-make-it-scary instead of let's-make-it-believable. The film suffers from one too many plot aspects that scream "only in the movies," and as a result it leaves a taste of dissatisfaction that, in the end, slightly overpowers and thus totally weakens the film's effectiveness.
One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist — or a political science major, for that matter — to see Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later as an allegory of the United States involvement in Afghanistan (or Iraq, take your pick), but it does help to keep the idea in mind so as to see the total lack of involvement of the military of any other European land as logical. (OK, the troop is supposedly a NATO troop, but where are the non-US troops? Believable, it is not: England succumbs to a virus of apocalyptic proportions and no European — or Commonwealth — country is involved in the NATO troops sent to clean up the aftermath and repopulate the city.) But politics aren't the main point of 28 Weeks Later; the point of the film is to thrill and scare you, and occasionally gross you out with some top notch and bloody special effects. And that, at least, it does well.
In what is well the best interlude of the entire movie, the film opens with Don (Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting [1996 / trailer], Ravenous [1999 / trailer] and Ronny Yu's The 51st State [2001 / trailer]) and Alice (Catherine McCormack), their children safe in the US, hiding in a country house with four other survivors. When the house is attacked by a roaming band of rage-infected, Don is forced to abandon Alice and save himself, which he barely manages to do. From the opening moments of Don and Alice endearments to the believable interaction of the survivors, the frenzy and terror of the attack, the tragedy and mounting anarchy of the horrific events literally knock the viewer from the comfort of their sofa. The opening of 28 Weeks Later is without a doubt effective, horrific and completely believable — it's a shame the rest of the film isn't likewise.
Following a brief timeline explaining the history of the rage outbreak up until the re-population of London 28 weeks later, the kids Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy Mackintosh Muggleton) are reunited with Don, who works as a sort of general manager (and therefore has a pass card that enables him to enter everywhere — including areas that logically should be of high security). Later, Tammy and Andy easily sneak out of the high-security zone (right) to go to their old home to collect some personal items. What do you know, their Mom is still alive and living in the attic (right). The army arrives and instead of shooting her, take her back to home base, where Scarlet (Rose Byrne of Sunshine [2007 / trailer] and the horrendously crappy Alex Proyas film Knowing [2009 / trailer]), the doc in charge, figures out that she's an infected carrier and could hold the key to a cure. Commander Stone (Idris Elba) orders Mom to be killed, but before that can happen Don sneaks in (right) and they kiss and make up. Thus Don is infected with rage and, after brutally killing his wife, he goes on a rampage killing and spreading the virus. Alice goes to save the kids, but Andy gets separated in the melee. He ends up locked in the basement by the military with all the other civilians — for their safety (?). Don breaks in (right) and all hell breaks loose, but Andy escapes through the air vents and before you know what happens he survives the free for all on the streets and finds Alice and Tammy (right). Then the sniper Doyle (Jeremy Renner of Dahmer [2002 / trailer]) shows up to try to lead everyone to safety as the military basically incinerates London and everyone on the streets. Not only must they make it past a military out to obliterate and sterilize everything, but Don is actually hunting his kids. (An unbelievable development that can only be swallowed if the viewer accepts the idea that the virus has changed and those infected are no longer simply homicidally bonkers but can now think and plan to a limited extent. Indeed, for Don to get out and around like he does following his infection, he probably had to use his pass card — not something a mindlessly raging animal is apt to be able to do.) From here, 28 Weeks Later is sort of like yet another version of 10 Little Indians where the countdown is inter-spaced with well-shot violent interludes and some truly questionable decisions on part of the various characters that, if nothing else, leads to a believably depressing ending.
Danny Boyle, when asked about his turn doing second-unit shooting for 28 Weeks Later, stated "There's something about doing something trashy that's great." In turn, there's something about trashy films that make them fun and enjoyable. 28 Weeks Later is trash, if only because of its less than watertight script and emphasis on gore, but at least it is well-made trash: it is definitely well-filmed and adrenaline-charged, and it interests and often scares, but once too often the forced mechanisms of its plot detract from the overall experience. Whereas the first film tried to do something new, this film is basically well-made trash riding on the coattails of its predecessor. As such, it does make a good watch and is easily miles better than, say, the enjoyable but much more truly trashy Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007 / trailer), which is easily equal in its "only in the movies" plot development but embraces its exploitation roots with greater relish and honesty.
That 28 Weeks Later actually works at all says more about Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's directorial abilities than anything else. It'll be interesting to see what he brings out next...

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