London, England: an unreal city where death has undone so many. Unfortunately, rather than TS Eliot’s innocuous flood of commuters, the wasteland of 28 Weeks Later is plagued by flesh-ripping zombies, and its erstwhile human population has been reduced to sacks of biohazard trash. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel to Danny Boyle’s seminal 28 Days Later… (2002) is a nearly-great horror film, but it trips itself up at several important moments – rather like a screaming teenager running away from the living dead.
There’s a new cast and new characters, but the fundaments of the scenario are the same: it’s 28 days since the Rage Virus broke out, turning peaceable denizens into kinetically frenetic blood-spattered psychos. This time we begin in the English countryside, in a dark dwelling, a woman, Alice (Catherine McCormack), cooks dinner – dried pasta and canned vegetables – the kind of stuff students and people besieged by the un-dead have to eat. By candlelight she looks with worry and wistfulness at a photo of her family. Her husband, Don (Robert Carlyle), assures her their children are safe – out of the country on a foreign holiday. Dinner is served. Then there’s a frantic knocking at the door, accompanied by the voice of an unknown child crying to be let in. As they un-barricade the door, bright, blinding daylight replaces the darkness: it becomes clear they have been forced to live in permanent night to hide themselves from the marauding hordes of ‘The Infected’. Rarely has a horror film made sunshine such a dark shock. But the boy at the door is being pursued and there are only a few moments respite before hell falls upon the house, out of the mild English summer.
Except this horror, like its 2002 predecessor, has more to do with humanity than Hades. There’s a distinct sense of a post-God world in both films. The Rage Virus has been created in a laboratory – so what we have to fear is man-made, not supernatural. But Weeks is bleaker than Days. Where Days consistently showed the triumph of a better human nature, Weeks shows the ultimate failure of morality to safeguard life. In Fresnadillo’s vision what we are is messy and emotional and therein lays our downfall; what we need to be is pragmatic, expedient and Darwinian to survive. We need to keep the door shut against the boy who knocks.
Cut from countryside to city. It’s now 28 weeks since the outbreak and our location is the Isle of Dogs – that bubble of futuristic architecture that is London’s docklands. The Rage has burnt itself out – the zombies dying of starvation. And now the American army has taken over the country and the repatriation of British citizens – including children - has begun. Don’s kids, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Macintosh Muggelton), return to find their dad is still alive, their mother dead.
There is a clear allusion to Iraq in the portrayal of American occupation. The Isle of Dogs is described as a ‘green zone’ and this film brings new meaning to the term ‘friendly fire’. But there is also a peculiar resonance with World War II: we have Britain as an infected isle - an inversion of the ‘island nation’ - America again comes to our rescue, returning children echo the return of evacuees, and there’s even a sequence where the streets of the East End are firebombed.
Visually, this second film is equally as impressive as its antecedent and remains true to its style. The cinematography in both embraces iconic images of the UK but rids them of cliché – from green and pleasant fields to Nelson’s Column. And Weeks has the same mix of eerily, even meditatively calm shots, spliced with manically chopped up, fast footage. The only shift is that this film is actually shot on film – not DV – so it has a little more gloss and little less guerrilla about it. Whether or not that’s progress depends on your taste.
But while 28 Weeks Later feels both fresh and faithful, it’s got more action going on than thought. Where Days was about the characters and the ideas, Weeks is all about the plot. And it screws this up. Surrounded by an otherwise toxic city, the Yanks make it clear that it is forbidden for anyone to leave the safe zone. Needless to say, this rule is breached – but sadly it’s done without any narrative finesse. This is quickly compounded by something even less believable – if US security were really this bad, there wouldn’t be a tall building left standing in America. This is a classy and entertaining genre film, but it guts itself of internal logic, for no good reason. Added to which it suffers a little from the Curse of the Sequel. The problem is that 28 Days Later… was more intelligent, more shocking, more stylistically innovative, more shiny-and-new in that way that only Danny Boyle can do shiny-and-new. So despite an ending that’s well worth waiting for, Weeks just can’t quite match the power of Days.