Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
It would be fair to say that Danny Boyle’s low-budget zombie flick 28 Days Later revolutionised the way viewers and filmmakers treated the living dead, giving a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the heart of a stale genre riddled with moribund clichs so expertly sent up in Simon Pegg’s affectionate homage Shaun of the Dead.
Gone were the shambling half-carcasses of old, replaced by visceral, bloodthirsty and extremely nippy-on-their-pegs creatures that infected London’s eerily deserted streets. That film, coupled with another heart-pounding Brit-flick, The Descent, dragged horror films kicking and screaming into the 21st century louder, faster and much more realistic than anything from across the Atlantic.
Now, sneaking in under the radar, a little like the original, is the unexpected, and many would argue unwanted follow-up, 28 Weeks Later. Set, predictably, seven months after the outbreak in the original film, it sees plague survivor Robert Carlyle welcoming back his children from a foreign trip into the gradually reconstructing Britain, where American soldiers have taken over the Isle of Dogs as a de-zombified Green Zone (yep, Iraq allegories abound here).
We learn, through a short and nasty prologue, that Carlyle has done the dirty on their mother, leaving her to fend for herself when the farmhouse they were hiding in was overrun by the infected some months previously. However, after the kids break out of the quarantined area to retrieve some possessions from their house, it turns out their mother is still very much alive, and carrying a new strain of the virus. Cue undead mayhem on a much larger scale than the original, with the American army and a whole township of people in the virus’ sights.
This idea of the ‘bigger, badder’ sequel is where 28 Weeks Later lives and dies. A larger cast and budget does not always guarantee a better film, and while this is an excellent standalone action-horror flick, fans of the original will feel a little short-changed by some of the more bombastic elements of the film. Little here is left to the imagination the scene where the American forces lose control of the virus in the so-called safe’ zone and begin mowing anything down is spectacularly bloody, and the zombies are allowed much more screen time to inflict some wholesale damage on their unlucky victims.
The beauty of the original film was that the low budget constrained the wide-screen panorama of the infection, meaning that you saw the horrible aftermath from a very human perspective, rooting for all three of the main characters. Here, with a much larger budget, the film is allowed to expand, with helicopters, firebombing and grand shots of a completely deserted London. It takes away from the characterisation of its predecessor, although this may also be in part to the fact that every main character quickly becomes zombie-food as soon as the action gets going.
While these bigger set-piece action sequences are well-staged, and more than a little fun (a scene where a number of zombies are shredded by a helicopter blade will see fans of Peter Jackson’s early splatter flick Braindead whoop with delight), 28 Weeks Later is best in the rare moments that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is given the opportunity to ramp up the claustrophobic tension of the original, like in a bravura scene (more than a little influenced by The Descent) in Paddington underground station seen solely through the night-scope of a rifle, or the heart-stopping opening attack on the farmhouse.
As sequels go, this is certainly more up there with Aliens rather than Jaws 2. Fresnadillo, director of cult Spanish thriller Intacto, shows great potential, and great respect for 28 Days’ down and dirty graininess, keeping the infected horribly lifelike, and the scenes of plague-ravaged London are suitably breathtaking. However, when your predecessors have reinvented the wheel, there is not much more that you can do but keep it turning. The initial shock to the system of 28 Days Later has gone, leaving us wondering where the next innovator will come from.