In 28 Weeks Later, it’s not the devil-red eyes of the rabid infected or the feral, slobbering sounds they make as they feed on human flesh that scare the bejesus out of us — it’s the sickening silence that now blankets all of mainland Britain. It has also been four years since 28 Days Later, the startling, stylish, nihilistic, genre-crossing thriller from director Danny Boyle, made such a bloody splash. As the timekeeping title suggests, some six months have passed since a ”rage virus” swept through London, turning the afflicted into a new breed of zombies for an age of terrorism and AIDS. In that time, U.S. troops have stormed in to contain the damage. And now America, represented in uniform by The Wire’s Idris Elba as a can-do Army general, has unilaterally declared that the war on fundamentalist zombiehood has been won — Mission Accomplished and all that. A green zone of quarantine and safety has been created in one corner of London. Let the reconstruction begin.
Tell that to the terrified refugees hiding in the countryside. Don (Robert Carlyle from Trainspotting, his mean, ferrety aspects brought to the fore) and his wife, Alice (Braveheart’s Catherine McCormack), are two of the dispossessed, holed up in the candlelit darkness of an abandoned farm with a handful of other survivors, while brilliant sunshine streams outside with a joyousness that calls for an English ode. Even with their teenage daughter, Tammy (relative newcomer Imogen Poots), and younger son Andy (total newcomer Mackintosh Muggleton) safely away at a location beyond the virus’ reach, Don and Alice take no chances, scuttling and hoarding in case death stalks green England again.
Turns out it does. The populace has not been liberated completely from the viral scourge after all, and in a grand gory-as-all-get-out amplification of the juicy, jittery, video-textured frenzy established by Boyle in the original, sequel director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo lets loose almost immediately with a circus of yuck. We’re invited to a gruesome, quick-paced fiesta of swarming and feeding by some of the unpacified infected. In fact, terror still reigns in a shell-shocked nation located in close psychological proximity to the postapocalyptic England of Children of Men. Is this war winnable? Don’t count on it.
How and under what ghastly circumstances the children are reunited with their parents is yours to discover. During that time, you’ll also learn that at least one American doctor, played by Rose Byrne, and two American soldiers, played by Jeremy Renner and Harold Perrineau, are compassionate antidotes to Yankee blowhardism. But that still leaves a whole lot of coarse soldiers spying through high-powered telescopes on the population they’re meant to be protecting. And when their commanding officer orders a surge, these guys let loose a firestorm that turns one of the world’s great cities into an inferno.
What’s mine to ponder is the grim reality that a sequel, especially to a movie that once surprised, can never produce the same bite as the original. The genre twist is no longer so novel, the darkness of tone no longer so unnerving, the gaudy zombiedom no longer so tasty. Plus, we’re missing the arresting hallucinatory stare of Cillian Murphy as the original zombiepocalypse survivor.
But that also brings me back to the silence. 28 Weeks Later excels at creating a keen, creepy sense of a civilization stopped dead in its tracks — vaporized, almost, except for those disemboweled bodies left still undisposed. Fresnadillo (director of the cool 2002 Spanish thriller Intacto) and his screenwriting team have a good feeling for big-city emptiness — famous London landmarks that might just as well be rubble, so ghostly do they look. But the filmmakers also appreciate what it feels like to be living day to day in limbo, as if with the mute button on.
Having reconnected at one point with their father and been resettled in exactly the kind of ugly high-rise that might make Prince Charles, an outspoken critic of modern architecture, say rude things, Tammy and Andy slip free (as children are apt to do) from their designated urban safety area for some unsupervised play. Eluding detection, they set out for their childhood home in another, cozier part of the city. Everything looks the same but different, inviting but devoid of all hope. Indeed, England looks, in this grisly hybrid thriller, as if it has had the blood sucked out of it by a force that isn’t going to stop at the borders.