It may not receive a ticker-tape parade or a presidential decree, but next year, the modern zombie film will celebrate its 40th anniversary. George A. Romero probably had little idea when he shot his black-and-white 1968 cheapie Night of the Living Dead that he would sire a legion of undead offspring, but that’s exactly what happened. What’s most surprising, though, is how this once-schlocky genre has grown up over the past 40 years, evolving into a bloody prism for examining such social issues as mindless consumerism (1979’s Dawn of the Dead) and rah-rah military hubris (1985’s Day of the Dead). That’s a lot to heap on the shoulders of a bunch of zombies.
When Danny Boyle’s postapocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later came out in 2003, it pushed the envelope in two major ways. The first was its introduction of ”fast zombies.” In almost all previous incarnations, the undead lumbered like slow-walking trees, arms raised at 90-degree angles, moaning for brains. But in 28 Days Later, they moved like rabid, caffeinated jackals. It was new, bold, utterly terrifying. Boyle’s second twist was having his zombies not be zombies, per se, but infected people. Italian directors like Lucio Fulci had toyed with this idea before, but they never fleshed it out (so to speak) the way 28 Days Later did.
When Cillian Murphy awakens in an abandoned hospital at the beginning of the film, the plague that’s turned London into a no-man’s-land isn’t something out of a horror film we’ve seen a million times before; it’s something far scarier. Scientists who injected monkeys with an experimental ”rage virus” have lost control of their creation. And the virus has jumped species until all that remains are a few survivors roaming the city, trying to stay one step ahead of the hordes of extremely hungry ghouls with blood frothing from their mouths.
What 28 Days Later had going for it was its horrific freshness — it earned every ounce of its dread. Fresh dread is what’s missing from 28 Weeks Later, just out on DVD as a single-disc release or as a two-pack with 28 Days. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto), the sequel looks every bit as slick and cool as the original — the camera work belongs to the Paul Greengrass school of handheld mayhem — but the story offers nothing new: Hey, remember that virus from the first film? It’s back! Zombie films may have once been a disposable drive-in joke, but at this point in the game we expect them to say something, anything. To borrow from Woody Allen, zombie films need to keep moving forward or they die. What we have here is a dead zombie film. 28 Days Later: A- 28 Weeks Later: B-