28 Weeks Later is superior genre fare, directed and performed with such gusto that you scarcely notice its creaks. Atmospheric and creepy production design, excellent use of London locations and a succession of bloodcurdling chase sequences keep the tempo high, even as the improbabilities and contrivances mount.
The film-makers sometimes seem uncertain as to whether they are making a straight zombie B-movie or straying into the realm of Children Of Men-style political allegory, even referring obliquely to the US occupation in Iraq. Attempts at characterisation are undermined by the fact that so many of the protagonists either succumb to the rage virus or fall victim to the zombies. Nonetheless, audiences should not be bothered by the occasional shift in tone nor clunky moment: above all, 28 Weeks Later is an exhilarating ride.
The film's progenitor, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), was a solid box-office hit, grossing well over $50m worldwide, and the follow-up has every chance of overtaking those figures when it is released in the UK and US on May 11. Although Spider-Man 3 will already be in cinemas, the zombie sequel will have a few weeks' grace before the unleashing of such monster summer movies as Shrek The Third, Pirates Of The Caribbean 3 and the new Harry Potter, which will skew towards younger demographics.
Audiences clearly still have the stomach for zombie movies, and, as the success of Children Of Men suggests, they are also interested in dystopian sci-fi yarns with a strong contemporary political resonance. On one level, 28 Weeks Later also works as a family melodrama, albeit a very gruesome one, and this too might extend its appeal. An epilogue suggests we may be in for a third installment.
The film starts with a shakily shot and very bloody prologue. As zombies infected with the Rage virus continue to rampage, various survivors are hiding out in a boarded up house somewhere in the English countryside, among them Alice (McCormack) and Don (Carlyle.) They are down to their last tin of tomatoes and last bottle of wine. Inevitably, the zombies find their hiding place. Don flees, uncertain as to whether Alice has survived.
Six months after the original infestation, the US army is the occupying force in the UK and has declared that the virus has been wiped out: now, reconstruction can begin. Survivors are housed in a comfortable but heavily policed compound in East London's Docklands, an equivalent to Baghdad's Green Zone.
Here, Don is reunited with his children, who have been allowed to come back to Britain, and tells them that their mother is dead. In thinking that they have wiped out the virus, the US soldiers are guilty of hubris: you don't need to be a soothsayer to know that the zombies will soon return.
Fresnadillo (whose debut feature Intacto won a host of awards) brings an eerie lyricism to the storytelling that effectively counterpoints the many gruesome moments. For example, there is a haunting sequence early on in which Robert Carlyle is shown on a little boat going down river through the deserted rural counties surrounding London.
Equally evocative are the scenes of the brother and sister (well played by newcomers Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) venturing through an empty London on a tiny motorbike. The inclusion of the kids in the story proves an astute move allowing the film-makers, to take a child's eye view of the apocalyptic events depicted.
As in Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, there are moments here which echo Jack Clayton's famous ghost story The Innocents. For instance, the director includes several sequences of forlorn or threatening characters with their faces pressed up against windows.
There is a buddy movie aspect to the storytelling too, with a tough-talking, testosterone-driven US sergeant and his friend, a helicopter pilot, proving unlikely heroes. The dialogue is occasionally jargonistic, with soldiers discussing earnestly about containing the virus and running tests on corpses.
Many of the ideas and settings echo earlier films. The idea of zombies hiding in the bowels of the London Underground was explored in Gary Sherman's 1972 classic Death Line. The use of the football stadium (the newly rebuilt Wembley) evokes memories of the 1979 Quatermass series, in which Wembley also featured prominently.
Meanwhile, when zombies are mashed up on the blades of outboard motors or helicopters or when they are shot by snipers or incinerated, it is hard not to be reminded of similar moments of bloodletting in George Romero movies or those of his countless imitators.
There is also something deeply contrived about the way the virus is allowed to re-emerge. Still, even at its most derivative, 28 Weeks Later seldom loses its edge or relentless narrative drive.
Early on, as we see an occupying US army struggling to cope with an insurgency it doesn't understand, the parallels with Iraq are unmistakable. By the final reel, the film has turned into an old-fashioned chase movie. The overlaps with Children Of Men (stalling cars, children that must be saved for the benefit of humanity etc) are coincidental but striking nonetheless.
Amid the carnage, actors struggle to bring much emotional depth to their roles but the key performances are all lively enough. Catherine McCormack registers strongly as the traumatised and grief-stricken mother while Robert Carlyle, hamming it up just a little, enjoys getting almost as angry as he was when playing Begbie in Trainspotting.
The film is slickly shot and designed, and the unexpectedly elegiac music proves a plus.
Sociedad General de Cine
Twentieth Century Fox International
Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Enrique Lopez Lavigne