28 Weeks Later is a music video. Well, a series of them.
A shame, really. Its predecessor, 28 Days Later, was an excellent reinvigoration of the zombie attack genre.
Alisa and I went to see 28 Weeks last night, excited about the expansion on the sharp, distinct zombie thriller that is 28 Days. Unfortunately, the film seemed to stumble at every turn where 28 Days came out running. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (the director and screenwriter), with Rowan Joffe, Jesús Olmo, and Enrique López Lavigne had a big job ahead of them, and they did some great, great work on this film. Fresnadillo has the credentials for it (Intacto is a brilliant film), so my expectations were fairly high. But he and his fellow writers managed to pick up and drop every single interesting theme and opportunity in the film, waving them in front of us just long enough to gain our interest, then discarding them in favor of some worn-out, big-budget movie trope that was either disappointing, aggravating, unnecessary, or the cause of some eye-rolling. It’s a case of too many stories to tell with too little time for any of them.
28 Weeks picks up after the events of 28 Days: the island of Britain is depopulated as the result of an outbreak of the “rage virus”. The rage virus is essentially a virulent strain of rabies that transmits rapidly through fluids, and leave the host a hyper-violent, blood-vomiting zombie-like terror that can run like hell. This twist made 28 Days a big deal amongst zombie flick lovers, as zombies are usually presented as lumbering corpses. Well, the outbreak ran itself down after the infected starved to death (as they’re not technically dead or undead) and the UK was essentially emptied. The film picks up after a US-led NATO force came in, set up a safe zone in London and is now beginning repopulation/repatriation after about 6 months. This premise is ripe for a zombie tale, but the trick is: how do you restart an outbreak, show the reaction by the government, and create genuine human moments of drama?
Well, the whole thing plays out like a series of music videos. It was gory, no doubt. It was even effective at delivering genuine frights. (There’s a scene inside a light-less Underground station, shot through the night-vision scope of a rifle, that’s among the most powerful horror sequences I’ve ever seen.) But Fresnadillo presents us with the makings of 25 great unfinished concepts, rather than one complete one. The whole thing smells of a lethal editing process. I was tipped off at first when I noticed a few scenes in the trailer that didn’t seem to be in the version I saw in the theatre. It’s possible that I didn’t notice them, but I suspect that 28 Weeks was just too big for its own britches. I bet it had to be edited to death to keep it from sprawling and lagging as it tries to juggle all of its subplots, messages, and perspectives. In the final cut, entire themes and characters just disappear without so much as a nod. It all just ends up as a pile of thematic corpses littering the cold, dead London of the plot.
Continually, Fresnadillo does away with depth by relying on annoying and flat Hollywood tropes. One of the worst being consistently stupid children; specifically Don’s two children. You know the deal: children that act with no regard for the situation they’re in (“Let’s go wander out of the safe zone!”), but are simultaneously held up as the arbiters of unmarred moral clarity and truth (“You left mommy behind! You’re a bad man!”). Their naivete lets them behave like morons, and their simplistic view of the world allows them to pass pat moral judgement on those around them. What bothered me is not that they were fools, but that they’re presented as the voices of moral truth. Somehow, their youthful pluck and emotion is meant to show us The Way Things Are. Then, as Fresnadillo does throughout the film, he drops the issue at hand entirely, in favor of a different, much more facile conflict; one more appropriate to a slasher flick. It’s such a wasted opportunity. This is the first of many in this film.
Once the infection rears its head again, we’re flung into a noble but failed attempt to inject too much drama and depth into something we all know is coming: the breakdown of the system. We’re given a view into military high command, the ones who not only have to manage re-population, but will also have to order a “Code Red”, a military solution to an uncontrolled outbreak. Unfortunately, no one seems all that worried. The characters mention Code Red so much, in an effort to explain it to the audience ahead of time and create tension (it fails), that there’s no shock when it happens. This weird pre-explanation also leads to dialogue gems like this one:
Citizen 1: “This is madness.”
Citizen 2: “What’s happening?”
Citizen 1: “They’re shooting everybody.”
Citizen 2: “Why? It makes no sense.”
Military doctor: “It makes perfect sense. It’s Code Red.”
Thanks, I had no idea. I’m still wondering why we were shown the NATO high command. They provide no surprises or depth, and they explain away major plot developments before they happen. The focus should have stayed on the grunts and the low-level personnel. We don’t have the time to sympathize with the high command, and they never question their orders. As it stands, this entire swath of the film just shows up, ruins the plot, then leaves without a word. But this film seems to have trouble knowing when to show something, when to say it, and when to let us fill in the gaps on our own.
In 28 Days, Danny Boyle made great use of two of the most fundamental devices in horror: good pacing and the viewers’ anticipation. In other words: what’s scary isn’t seeing the bogeyman, it’s knowing that we’ll have to open the closed door he might be behind. So don’t throw a relentless series of bloodbaths and monsters at the viewer. Give them just enough to keep the threat in the background. Fresnadillo eschews this device almost every time, instead focusing on the raw rage-driven brutality of the infected, kicking it into overdrive. The film becomes a non-stop spray of blood and screaming at almost every turn, which loses it effectiveness and descends into numbing shock rather quickly. There’s very little down time, but how could there be when the film plays out like a long string of 3-minute music videos?
For example, in 28 Days we hear a survivor’s account of being in a packed Paddington station when the infected get loose. The images and questions brought up are chilling and stay with you. In 28 Weeks, Fresnadillo finds this situation irresistible and re-creates it in a half-lit underground bunker. What starts out as a scene just dripping horror and panic, with a single infected looking out at a parking bay lit only by lighters and flashlights, packed to bursting with panicking refugees, ends up playing out like a strobe-lit blender full of people. The sprawling horror of the scene’s potential is flattened to a one-dimensional frontal assault of gore and squelching, bloody crunches. What a waste. The sequence runs for minutes. It required only seconds. Just the sounds of that scene receding in the distance could have cut so much deeper than the bloody zombie dance party we’re made to sit through.
But perhaps the biggest let-down is that Fresnadillo seems not to understand that zombies aren’t characters. Zombie movies vary in the specifics, but one thing remains constant: zombies are not individuals, they’re an overwhelming mindless force, a manifestation of larger fears. What we human survivors do in the face of such a relentless and inhuman enemy forms the real emotional core of these tales. In an eye-rolling move, Fresnadillo tries to infuse distinct personality and motive into one of the infected. He’s traded off the chilling terror of a relentless horde that can turn you into mindless killing machine for the scares of being pursued by one madman. He reduces the zombie flick to the slasher flick, but without adequate time to infuse the antagonist with the menace appropriate to that sort of character. But he made sure we saw him jab his thumbs into someone’s eye sockets until they were dead, which isn’t nearly as effective, but at least it’s unnecessary and nauseating.
In a story of this scale, the plot is driven by the fate of the country, while the interest and depth springs from the fates of the individuals we focus on. But the film couldn’t commit to either. So we get a frenetic split; cutting around too often to settle on one element long enough to develop a genuine empathy or smooth narrative thread. The characters are flattened, the story’s drive becomes mechanical and a bit forced (I’m sorry, but the re-spreading of infection seemed a bit too easy to me. Lock a door, people!), and the entire film just felt cold and removed. This one film fails to show the military breakdown and swarming enemy so well delivered in Aliens, while also failing to show the chaos and decay of society ripped apart by the military so brilliantly shown in Children of Men. I’m not sure anyone could pull off what 28 Weeks tried to do.
In the end, 28 Weeks Later will probably be quite popular with a number of horror fans and zombie flick aficionados. There’s a lot for horror fans to like. But all I see is wasted potential and a franchise that lost its way. Fresnadillo is clearly a gifted filmmaker, but this project just didn’t hold together like it should have. To watch this film is to go on a tour of Things That Could Have Been. There are too many individual instances of things left unaddressed or unexplained to list them here. Cuts that should have been made in the script obviously weren’t made until the editing room, or were tacked on afterwards. They drained the blood out of the storytelling so it could be sprayed out of the the extras in arterial jets. But don’t worry! The infected manage to spill through a nice, big plot hole into the cold light of trilogy potential. A chance to redeem the series still exists, but I won’t be holding my breath.
Ad Exec Review: “Eradication. Sterilization. Re-population. Re-infection.” “When days turn to weeks.”
MPAA Review: “Strong violence and gore, language and some sexuality/nudity.”