While it doesn't have the savvy social critique or lo-fi innovations of Danny Boyle's brilliant 28 Days Later, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's gut-twisting follow-up is an exercise in pure visceral fear, serving up healthy doses of dread and gore.
28 Weeks Later opens brutally with a farmhouse assault by the psychotic victims of the highly contagious "rage virus." Red-eyed and vomiting blood, the infected cannibals interrupt a candlelit dinner, sending half a dozen Brits running for their lives. Consumed with fear, Don (Robert Carlyle) escapes, leaving his wife and family behind.
Flash forward seven months. The flesh-eating infected have all starved to death, and Britain's shell-shocked survivors are quarantined in a U.S.-established "Green Zone," where they're protected and policed by America's finest. Don, now a facilities manager, is reunited with his children and struggles to hide his guilt.
As fast as you can say, "the plague is over," a carrier for the virus is discovered and all hell breaks loose. Good thing the Yanks are there to keep order, right? As anyone who saw the first film knows, never trust a soldier who says, "We're here to help you." Before you know it, snipers are picking off refugees and crazies alike.
As he demonstrated with his first film, Intacto, Fresnadillo is a skilled filmmaker who can twist genre conventions while elevating his audience's heart rate. Vibrant horror sequences escalate with nightmarish speed as the Spanish director makes terrific use of his abandoned British locales. Unnerving shots of ruined Britannia filled with charred bodies and mounds of garbage provide a relentlessly bleak backdrop. Whether it's a panicked crowd locked in a darkened warehouse with a foaming zombie or survivors making their way through a lightless tube station, the combination of impending doom and sudden frenetic violence makes for a harrowing cinematic experience.
As the screaming plague victims and merciless military whittle the cast down one by one, 28 Weeks Later walks the line between gross-out shocks and subversive commentary. Not surprisingly, American military policies are depicted as aggressively insensitive and smugly flawed. Fresnadillo suggests that it's a tossup as to which is worse: being eaten alive by an infected family member or trusting the U.S. government. Whichever you choose, you're equally screwed. It's a none-too-subtle critique that misses the sly humor of Boyle's film. Post-9/11 suspicion and despair inform much of his politics and his comment on the modern nuclear family is especially grim. Not only is it every man for himself, but parents are the true enemy of children.
Where Fresnadillo's efforts fall short, however, are in his characters, which are disappointingly anonymous. Though the cast is uniformly strong, it's difficult to care about who lives and who dies when everyone is reduced to a moving target. The children scream, sympathetic soldiers bark commands but no one connects as a human being.
This is particularly disappointing with Carlyle's Don. Though the film's opening sets up an intriguing and damning situation, his character is never forced to account for his sins or attempt to redeem himself. Instead, he's unceremoniously turned into a blood-soaked monster that, contrary to the film's conceits, emerges as an individualized villain.
With the first film, director Boyle understood how to inject humanity and emotional resonance into his sadistically nihilistic story. His nightmarish vision of a psychotic pandemic unnerved us in ways that went beyond e-ticket excitement. Here, there is plenty of horrific imagery on hand but little personalization. Still, with its expertly paced thrills, unrelenting terror and apocalyptic despair, 28 Weeks Later ain't a bad roller coaster to ride.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.