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October/November 2007
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Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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by Kathi Maio

Mission Accomplished At the Zombie Jamboree

Film scholars have asserted that zombie movies are one of the few horror subgenres to burst (or lumber) directly from real-life—that is, Anglo perceptions and misconceptions of Haitian "voodoo" African-based religion—onto the stage and silver screen, without first passing through the filter of a fictional literary tradition.

While that may be true, it is also true that the zombie film has evolved over the years in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with its Haitian forebears. (It's been a while since I've seen a Vodoun priest as a major character in a zombie flick. But then again, maybe I just don't do enough poring over the straight-to-DVD shelf.)

What is a more common component of cinematic zombie fables over the last seventy-five years or so is their penchant for allegory. Zombie plots have been used to comment upon everything from the exploitation of the working class to the perils of pollution to the existential isolation of modern man to the brain-numbing dangers of a consumer culture.

Still, with its descent into videogame-inspired action schlock with Resident Evil (2002), and into unnecessary remakes, like 2004's Dawn of the Dead, the zombie formula seemed to have run out of steam. That old zombie finally starved to death. Or so I thought, until the several sons of Hammer brought the genre roaring back to life in Britain.

The more farcical variation upon the theme came in the form of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's ghoulishly hilarious Shaun of the Dead (2004). And in the dramatic school of zombiedom came a marvelously suspenseful and involving movie called 28 Days Later (2002).

Written by Alex Garland (The Beach) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), the DV-shot feature felt fresh and original despite the familiar themes and frequent homage bits to A Clockwork Orange, Day of the Triffids, and the work of zombie-king George A. Romero.

In a world paranoid about the dangers of HIV, SARS, Ebola, Mad Cow, and a dozen other possible plagues, the 28 Days Later action begins in a London lab where well-intentioned animal rights activists pave their nation's road to hell by releasing chimpanzees stricken with a virus called "the Rage" that is easily transmitted through blood and saliva. Victims are, in less than a minute (!), transformed into bloodthirsty, hyper-violent killing machines. And they move a heck of a lot faster than your old-time zombies.

Before long, few uninfected humans are left in London town. Among them is a young bike messenger named Jim (Cillian Murphy) who awakens from a coma in a hospital to find the facility and much of the city deserted. Before long he is fleeing a zombie priest (of the Anglican, not Vodoun, variety) and teaming up with two other survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley), and Selena (Naomie Harris), who clue him in on the kill-or-be-killed rules of survival in a Rage-ridden world.

Although there is lots of bloody action, tension, and dread to 28 Days Later, what I liked best was the film's willingness to allow the central characters their humanity, and to allow both characters and audience members to find momentary relief in moments of humor, tenderness, and even natural beauty.

Jim, Selena, and a Father-Daughter team with whom they eventually join forces, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), are much more than stock characters, and 28 Days actually lets us care about them. Which, of course, makes it so much more distressing when virus or violence befalls one or more of them.

As for social commentary, 28 Days doesn't lay it on too thick. It taps our fears of modern pandemic, and beyond that simply seems to observe that "normalcy" on the "diseased little island" of England always had been predicated on violence and destruction. No surprise, then, that when a small band of stiff upper-lipped military men with whom our heroes meet up seem intent on starting a "new civilization," they have no qualms about basing their new Eden on absolute domination and sexual slavery.

The brave and cynical Selena advises Jim early on that "staying alive is as good as it gets." But neither she nor the film 28 Days Later really believes that. Or, at least, they feel mightily conflicted about that conclusion. And for proof, you need look no further than the two endings given to the film in theaters, and the total of four that can now be viewed on the DVD. The theatrical release primary ending was the most upbeat and hopeful—and was completely free of bloodthirsty demons. Late in the theatrical release the filmmakers added an alternate armed-chicks-in-bloody-red-dresses finale at the end of the credits for those with a more pessimistic slant. And two additional possible conclusions are offered on the DVD.

Garland and Boyle (who are frequent collaborators) contemplated with their numerous 28 Days Later denouements a full spectrum of possibilities from the quasi-idyllic to the harshly resolute. But none of their endings, tellingly, abandoned hope altogether.

Perhaps this was merely to allow for the inevitable sequel; which was, of course, guaranteed by the success of the first film. But you have to respect the fact that Garland, Boyle, and their production team decided that any sequel needed a fresh approach. So they courted a young Spanish filmmaker, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto), and let him and his writing team—which consisted of a first draft by Rowan Joffe (Last Resort), and follow-up work by Fresnadillo, his Spanish producing partner Enrique López-Lavigne, and writer Jesús Olmo—to go where they wanted with the basic concepts established in 28 Days Later.

And it turns out that where they wanted to take dear London was to a very dark place indeed!

The tone, the look, the energy level, and the overall gore factor in 28 Weeks Later is nothing like that of its predecessor. For those who felt that 28 Days Later wasn't gruesome enough to be a true horror flick, you will likely enjoy the splatter-fest that Mr. Fresnadillo offers much better.

Personally, I am one of those people who prefer suspense to splatter, but I can nonetheless appreciate the slaughterous delights of Mr. Fresnadillo's gut-wrenching ride.

Although most of the action occurs six months after the initial Rage outbreak, the film opens with a scene concurrent with the first film's action. Selena, Jim, et al., are no longer the focus. Instead, we open on a loving couple preparing a meal in a darkened kitchen. Don (Robert Carlyle) and Alice (Catherine McCormack) are holed up in a rural house with an old couple and two younger adults. But before long a horde of infected, highly determined ghouls are breaking through their barricades. What ensues is a heart-pounding scene in which Don shows what kind of man he is. And we learn that in a moment of life-or-death panic he can think of nothing but his own survival. He leaves his poor devoted wife to be savaged and runs like hell.

Fast forward six months and the infected have long since died of starvation and the few survivors have passed quarantine. A U.S.-led NATO force has now begun a process of reconstruction and repatriation in Britain. Among the haunted survivors is our cowardly friend, Don, who works maintenance within the protected Green Zone on London's Isle of Dogs. Don's two children, a young boy, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), and his teenaged sister, Tammy (Imogen Poots) have just arrived back in London after being conveniently away on a school trip to Spain when the outbreak decimated their country.

Don, understandably, isn't completely honest with his children about the death of their mother. And it is his guilt, cowardice, and dishonesty (as well as his convenient security swipe pass) that directly and indirectly leads to fresh and so-very-bloody disaster. That and the total incompetence of the short-sighted American military commanders in their attempt to bring peace and order to another country.

Are you starting to see that the allegorical nature of the zombie movie has made an impressive come-back in 28 Weeks Later? Bless its heart, Fresnadillo's film is best enjoyed—by me, at least—as an indictment of the American quagmire in Iraq.

I almost laughed out loud when an army escort tells a trainload of returning Brits—lambs to the slaughter that they are—that there are no fears as they enter the Green Zone, because the "the U.S. Army is here to protect you." Indeed, all hell breaks loose shortly thereafter. And when they are unable to control the violent chaos, the Army command overreacts with horrifying violence of their own: sniping, firebombing, poison-gassing, and torching the innocent along with the infected.

The film is careful to show that not all Americans are idiots. In fact, the focal characters in 28 Weeks Later are (besides Don's children) an American medical officer, Scarlet (Rose Byrne), who is as smart as she is compassionate, and a sniper with a conscience who attempts to lead Scarlet and her charges out of the city. Sergeant Doyle (Jeremy Renner) may be a macho tough guy, but he also happens to be genuinely brave and capable of self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Just don't get too attached to any of these folks. Their outlook is looking bleak….as is the outlook for the rest of the planet.

Perhaps it is this sense of doom that keeps Fresnadillo and his writers from completely developing their characters. More likely it is simply that character development would take precious minutes away from the stomach-turning anxiety he hopes to maintain in his viewers for a full hour and a half.

As previously indicated, those horror aficionados who thought Garland and Boyle were too soft are unlikely to think the same of Mr. Fresnadillo and his unrelenting sequel. He and his D. P., Enrique Chediak, get up close and personal with their carnage. Their handheld cameras seem to be infected, too, as they ricochet through the bloody mayhem of an outbreak. And if you were hoping that, just for fun, a helicopter pilot would slice and dice a hundred or so zombies with his chopper blades, well, I don't think I'll be spoiling the nuance of the story by telling you that you won't be disappointed.

The high-octane horror of 28 Weeks Later is not for the faint of heart, or those who believe in peace in our time. (Nor is it for those poor deluded souls who feel certain that "there will always be an England.") But those who like nothing better than an extended metaphor along with their blood'n'guts, then 28 Weeks Later might be just your cuppa tea. Or should I say glass of sangria?

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