Zombie movies have forever been the comedy of the horror film industry. Few other genres have produced so many unintentionally funny moments or as many lines of bad dialog as zombie films. That was until recently, when director Danny Boyle unleashed his harrowing tale of a virus outbreak on the isle of Great Britain in the summer of 2002. His film, 28 Days Later, redefined what zombie films were capable of; it showed us that such films actually could be scary and real.
Boyle’s zombies were not the slow, plodding flesh eaters of movies past, but instead Rage infected humans gone berserk, with a speed and agility equal to their uninfected prey. His vision was rooted in reality; a virus was unintentionally let loose by a band of do-good animal activists, and 28 days later the city of London is discovered abandon and devoid of life by a head trauma patient who must have been mistaken for dead in a hospital ward. The film follows this man, Jim, played then by little-known Cillian Murphy, as he finds other survivors and attempts to understand what has happened to his world. The movie was filmed using video, and has a raw, gritty edge to it. It feels real, and we accept it without any questions asked. There’s no campy dialog, no silly monsters, and the whole thing feels very frightening and possible.
One of the primary questions the movie raises is this: Did the Rage virus mange to infect the entire world, or just Great Britain?
28 Weeks Later, the follow up by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, answers that question. But 28 Weeks Later does much more than attempt to cash in on the success of its parent film; it takes the story that Danny Boyle created and catapults it down a new path that is just as frightening, thrilling and visceral as its predecessor. Fresnadillo deserves a lot of credit for not only staying true to the world, story and directorial style of Boyle, but for creating a sequel that is actually better than the original, something very few sequels can lay claim to.
28 Weeks Later starts off with perhaps the best opening ten minutes of any film this year; it’s intense and frightening and instantly forces us to brace ourselves for what is to come. We realize immediately there will be no easing into the gruesome truth of this world. Fasten your seat belts and get ready to ride.
After the opening we’re given a small montage that brings us through the events of the past 28 weeks; through the spread of the Rage virus, the subsequent death of the “infected” as they starve, the pronouncement that Great Britian is safe from the virus, and up to the present time, where a US based military operation is overseeing the reintroduction of humans into Britain. Families are reunited and people start to make some attempt to return to normal, all the while the threat of the virus remains because so little is known or understood about it.
But this wouldn’t be a zombie film if life returned to normal, now would it?
Somewhere along the way things go bad. I can’t say what happens without revealing a small twist that Fresnadillo injects into the franchise, but it’s a welcome twist that furthers the story. Violence ensues, with many zombies, lots of blood and quite a bit of fear and panic.
What is surprising about the movie is how well it works for a sequel without two key ingredients: the previous director and cast. This is a totally different film, helmed by a new director and complete with a new cast. Well, I say new but they aren’t; 28 Days Later was a story about one group of people coping with the Rage virus in their corner of London. 28 Weeks Later deals with the same virus, only much later. It makes total sense that the original cast is nowhere to be found, because this is a different story. But Fresnadillo does such an amazing job that we feel like we never left the other film. The continuity between the two movies is amazing.
What makes the film work are the same ingredients that made the original work: The zombies are fast, aggressive and deadly. They strike fear instantly. The setting makes them dangerous in the extreme, and survival is paramount. And because it’s all based on a very nasty, fast-traveling virus, it feels realistic. It becomes easy to suspend any disbelief while watching this movie, and that makes the horror of it all the more terrifying. The cast is great and believable, and we feel their fear and pain every step of the way. Fresnadillo paces the film just as well as Boyle did in the original, if not better; there’s not a wasted frame in the whole thing and we feel like we need to catch our breath just watching.
Sequels so frequently disappoint; they often lack the magic of their predecessors, or they lack the writing/casting/directing to make them work properly. Quite often we’re fed sequels that do little more than exploit a name brand for cash purposes (Ocean’s 12). Thankfully, 28 Weeks Later does not fall into this category. If anything, it surpasses the benchmark set by the first film.
Here’s hoping that if there is a 3rd installment in this franchise its as good as these two films have been.