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Non-Review Review: 28 Weeks Later

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

It’s strange. 28 Days Later felt strangely British, with its almost quaint surroundings and “island fortress” mentality. Filmed in High Definition with an intimate approach, the movie felt somehow more tangible and organic than most of these films, managing a genuine emotional impact that it’s easy to lose sight of in these fantastical narratives – its small scale and quirky design (along with hyper saturation) lent the movie a very distinct feel, the sensation that this was a “guerilla” zombie film – shot in the early morning on abandoned streets rather than closing off sections of town. In contrast, 28 Weeks Later feels a much more managed affair, and a much more conventional one. It’s shot like any other zombie movie, and clearly intended to reach an even wider audience than the original cult hit. It’s a great movie, but one can’t help but get the sensation that the fine polish applied to it undercuts some of the impact.

The army had to find something to keep themselves occupied...

If 28 Days Later felt distinctively British, 28 Weeks Later feels strangely American. It isn’t just the presence of actors like Jeremy Renner and Harold Perrineau among the cast, nor is it the fact that it is focused on the notion of an American occupation of a foreign country. The film just feels like a stylish blockbuster. In fairness, it makes great use of the tools that were never really available to its predecessor – firebombs and gas attacks are rendered in stunning CGI detail while the original film struggled to blow up a petrol station. Still, the scale comes at a cost – it’s harder to directly engage with the film and the characters. While I always feel a little uncomfortable watching 28 Days Later with its distorted colours, I was able to get quite comfortable quite fast with the sequel.

Don’t get me wrong. I said above it was a great film, and I mean it. I know it’s kinda contrary to the “judge every film on its own merits” ethos that us critical types are clearly intended to espouse, but I like to think that the fate of a movie’s cast after its release can serve as a reflection on the film itself. While Robert Carlyle was really the only “name” actor going into this film (and it’s a brave role for such a recognisable actor, which should be applauded), looking back several years later I can spot Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner, Rose Byrne and Idris Elba – all solid choices. And this ignores the presence of certified strong supporting players in relatively small roles (like Harold Perrineau and Mary McCormack). Picking a cast like that when they were all relatively unknown performers is quite an accomplishment.

The movie also benefits from a rather wonderful socially relevant subtext. I remarked in reviewing Romero’s films throughout the week that zombies are always tied to commentary on their times. While the original offered us the glimpse of a Western civilisation coming to glimpse with their own mortality and questioning their values in the face of an impossible threat, the sequel pushes the boat out a bit. Most zombie movies end on a depressing note – the audience is assured that the undead are unstoppable, they will keep coming. The lives of the protagonists are occasionally spared, but we’re certain that death will catch up with them eventually. However, 28 Weeks Later subverts this expectation. Unlike the Romero movies where things get consistently worse as we join the sequels, here things are under control.

Making a splash...

We’re shown a Britain that has withstood the storm. It truly is the “island fortress”. It seems almost ridiculous that the crisis resolved itself so fast, but American troops have landed and are seeking to make the country safe for habitation again. The secure “green zone” in Central London is patrolled by armed troops and rooftop snipers. The metaphor is decidedly straightforward – even down to the terminology. This might as well be Iraq. And you can guess what is going to substitute for insurgents.

In Max Brooks’ fantastic World War Z – which I wholeheartedly recommend to any zombie fans out there – the author suggests that conventional military tactics won’t work on the undead, and the unconventional nature of the threat exposes the weakness in standard military planning. Just for example, soldiers are trained to aim for the body (the centre of mass) rather than the head. As shown during a harrowing sequence here, it’s very hard to separate “the infected” from the regular civilians. Indeed, one could argue that places like cities have only really grown so large in recent centuries because of our medical and industrial advances – having so many people so heavily centralised would have been a crazy idea in the era of tuberculosis, and a zombie-style infestation exposes similar flaws.

However, the film is not too bothered with the “infection as virus” idea (save in some medical mumbo jumbo which serves to explain the present outbreak) and is much more fascinated with the “infected as terrorists” idea. Truth be told, the idea is fairly blunt, but it works. It’s a shame this angle is dropped so suddenly about half-way through the film in favour of a standard “survivors fleeing zombies” narrative, as it poses some interesting moral and philosophical questions.

That's why they call it the "chopper"...

On the subject of zombies (if I may call them that), it’s interesting to note that the film plays with ideas that Romero floated. In particular, Romero began to offer us the idea of “individual zombies” with Bud in Day of the Dead and Big Daddy in Land of the Dead. Admittedly this move has been controversial among zombie aficionados, some of whom believe the horde should be faceless, but it’s interesting to notice that this movie attempts a more straightforward (and, possibly, less ridiculous) example: we follow a particular “infected” individual and he even gets his own little arc, even if he doesn’t do anything as ridiculous as shooting a gun or teaching the other “infected” basic military strategy.

It’s also worth noting how respectful the film is to its direct predecessor. Even though one gets the sense that the studios wanted a far more conventional film, you can spot little references to Boyle’s original – for example, we actually see a scene of a character crawling over a crowd of panicked individuals as infection spread through the crowd, similar to a story related to Jim early on in the first film.

By the way, I’d feel somewhat remiss if I didn’t mention that young Imogen Poots fills in the movie’s “stunning eyes” quota, picking up where Cillian Murphy left off in the original. Murphy’s eyes are so stunning beautiful that (reportedly) director Christopher Nolan kept searching for reasons for him to remove his glasses in Batman Begins. Here, Poots’ eyes are similarly enchanting – almost as though the film demanded a set of deep eyes for the cast to get lost in.

28 Weeks Later is a very good film, and an above-average zombie movie. It just lacks the sort of raw emotion with pushed the first film into the realm of a cult classic. Indeed, the ending to the film is fairly anti-climactic, as it seems the characters simply do a bunch of stuff before reaching the designated end point – there’s no real climax or crescendo. Sure, each of the character arcs reaches completion, but it doesn’t feel like anything exceptionally “special” happens to indicate the film is ending, rather than the writer realised he was approaching his page limit and just stuck a finale in there, with all the requisite beats. That said, it’s a well-made film with some smart ideas and a great cast. It’s just probably not quite as brilliant as it should have been – which is perhaps an unfair criticism. But that’s the way things work out.

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