Thursday, February 14, 2008

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, "28 Weeks Later" (2007).

I wonder why people watch zombie movies. What is it that attracts people to stories of the walking dead? It's true that I make a point of including them in my broad exploration of the horror genre, but I was never really drawn to them in the first place. Yet they seem somehow indispensable once you have made you way through the haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possessions, slashers, witchcraft, monsters, and mental asylums of the classics. I must admit that since I started watching them, I have identified a select few as worthy recommendations. My favorite zombie movie of all time is Messiah of Evil. It's a lesser known gem with style to spare... call it the art-house zombie flick. I've also been moved by the new wave of fast-moving zombies depicted in the releases of the last few years. While it could arguably be defined as a "plague" or natural disaster film, I was particularly impressed by 28 Days Later.

Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, 28 Days Later (2002) concerned an imaginary "Rage virus" that swept through England, turning ordinary citizens into crazed killers. A small band of survivors attempts to find sanctuary against overwhelming odds. What impressed me about the film was the cinematography and editing. It's pacing was cringe-inducing and the atmospheric panorama shots of a devastated London added a lot to the overall sense of dread. The "zombies" themselves were terrifying, as they appeared to be almost superhuman with reserves of adrenaline that never seemed to be exhausted. They passed on their sickness by overtaking their prey and spewing bodily fluids into any open orifice. Their vacant madness was portrayed so effectively that infection was immediately apparent.

As one might expect, the military eventually gets summoned to deal with the spreading contagion. A lot of difficult choices need to be made concerning who (and when) to kill. Scientists would like to have the opportunity to study a living victim, but having one in the midst of the uninfected is an extremely perilous proposition. By the end of the film, the disease has mostly taken its course, and we have confidence that it has been contained on the island of Great Britain. The methods employed to deal with the social unrest caused by the Rage plague added additional layers of social commentary to the story, and anyone fascinated by governmental responses to crises should be well satisfied by 28 Days later. I have no doubt that people will be watching it decades from now (if they are watching anything at all).

When I heard that there was a sequel in the works, I was immediately skeptical. These follow-ups are generally bleak affairs that merely capitalize on the popularity of their predecessors and introduce very little uniquely compelling material. I had even less interest when I heard that Boyle wouldn't be involved with the film. But then I read that Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (who had directed the promising-but-ultimately-flawed Intacto) was slated to take the helm. This was a good sign. In addition, I read several positive reviews (including one from the Onion A/V Club) that suggested it was worth watching. So I made a point of picking it up and sharing it with a friend who I knew would be interested in seeing it.

As we settled in for the duration, we were drawn in by an anxiety-inducing opening that flashed back to a grisly scene during the initial outbreak. That sets the stage for the premise of 28 Weeks Later. We are brought up to speed concerning the elapsed time between the end of the last movie, and the main setting of the new one. American troops have been installed in London to create and maintain order in an operation of repatriation for 15,000 brave citizens. An area of the city has been cordoned off, leaving a small island of civilization surrounded by acres of waste and destruction. Right off the bat there are obvious parallels to the continuing occupation of Iraq. The US military has every intention of creating a viable new society on the brink of complete and utter ruin.

As one might expect, despite the "best of intentions" there is no way to control all variables of a population with its own agenda. Before long we learn that a carrier has survived the first cycle of the Rage plague. When that individual is introduced into the healthy population, there's a whole new phase of horror ready to unfold. What we get as viewers is another dose of paranoid creeping depression, as we consider what it might be like to find ourselves in the midst of such a scenario. There are no overtly "good"or "bad" characters in this drama. Those types of easy categorizations tend to break down along with the normal conventions when conditions of imminent disaster confront us. Ultimately that might be the most compelling feature of zombie films. The threat is a horde of beings no longer able to make moral distinctions. And even the survivors, when faced with such a breakdown, must revisit their own conceptions of "right" and "wrong". The question is not one merely of survival... but also of the quality of life.

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