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28 Weeks Later   C+

Fox Atomic / DNA Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Writers: Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, E.L. Lavigne, Jesus Olmo
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Catherine McCormack, Mackintosh Muggleton, Imogen Poots, Iris Elba.

Review by Rob Vaux

Movies like 28 Weeks Later make Flipside's grading system very painful for me. On the balance, I can't quite bring myself to recommend it: it sports too many contrivances, retreads, and general horror-movie idiocy to win me over. Hence, the final grade above. And yet this effort is so far above most horror sequels -- with a sharp point of view, an interesting subtext, and a group of talented filmmakers refusing to accept business as usual -- that to infer for one single instant that it is somehow less worthwhile is insulting. Most horror films aim low, and I've applauded a few for hitting their mark. 28 Weeks Later aims much higher and just barely misses. Hence the grade. But don't assume that it is beneath the likes of Snake on a Plane or Jeepers Creepers 2. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Its pedigree alone suggests much more than just cookie-cutter butchery. Danny Boyle's original 28 Days Later displayed a vision for the zombie genre that none save Romero himself has matched. Boyle steps aside for the sequel -- serving as executive producer, and leaving the directing to Spaniard Juan Carlos Fresnadillo -- but the trappings of the earlier film remain, and provide an easy template for a fresh round of mayhem. The plague that swept through Britain has been wiped out, thanks to a strict quarantine and a good deal of patience. Now, the U.S. Army has sent an occupation force into London to clean up the mess and allow the survivors to return. A "safe zone" has been established on the Isle of Dogs, guarded by a vigilant wall of American soldiers watching for any possible return of the "rage virus" that once transformed the populace into mindless killing machines.

Fresnadillo imbues the setup with a now-standard critique of U.S. foreign policy, complete with arrogant generals, dipshit grunts, and far-from-subtle references to Baghdad's green zone. Naturally, the threat isn't over, and naturally, the folks in charge are monumentally unprepared when it returns. Shit happens, viruses mutate, and things fall apart. Sweet Jesus, do they fall apart. 28 Weeks Later has a decent sense of how events might play out after the original film, but the specifics remain curiously inert. The fulcrum is a single family whose children (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) were on a field trip in Spain when the virus first appeared. The parents -- father Don (Robert Carlyle) and mother Alice (Catherine McCormack) -- found shelter for a time, but were separated during a zombie attack when Don abandoned his wife to near-certain death. Now, he's reunited with his children and holds a key position in the safe zone, but the memories still consume him and he hasn't yet found the courage to confront them head-on.

That sense of survivor's guilt has a huge amount of potential, which 28 Weeks Later establishes brilliantly. It becomes all the more frustrating, then, when the film slowly slides away from it in favor of more mundane plot twists. The virus returns, of course -- connected to Don and his family, who may be unwittingly carrying a cure -- and soon enough, that old time zombie chaos is stampeding through the streets again. On a visceral level, it works just fine, but a number of its key narrative points are slapped together with tenuous logic, and too many good ideas are wasted too often. The film's most important incident could have been prevented with one buck private saying, "Seriously, dude, you can't go in there," and the distressing number of similar examples grows too large to ignore. Such sloppiness is sometimes deliberate -- intended to convey the genre's basic truth about what thundering morons we can be -- but even then, it's facilitated in such a creaky manner that the message is lost beneath incredulous snorts.

Furthermore, Fresnadillo's chilly tone hampers some of the sympathy we need to make the otherwise first-rate shocks really hum. As appealing as the cast can be, we never come to care for them the way we did for the characters in the original. That's a pity because 28 Weeks Later has impeccable technical credentials, which it uses to create the same unique intensity as its predecessor. Fresnadillo applies a wonderful eye to the mostly abandoned London, and while he returns to that visual well a few times too many, its eerily empty landmarks still send a chill up the spine. The rage zombies, too, are as terrifying as ever, evoked by the same rapid editing style and stark film stock as the original. Other zombie movies have adopted the notion of swiftly moving undead with varying degrees of success, but Fresnadillo understands, as Boyle did, that they need more than just speed to be truly scary. The panic they induce and the way their disease spreads almost instantaneously from person to person make for some of the film's most potent scenes (as well as providing more wry commentary on the war on terror when edgy soldiers try to pick the "bad guys" out of a rioting mob). So too does 28 Weeks Later find elegant ways to toy with audience preconceptions, as defenders turn into foes with disturbing ease and good intentions plant the seeds of apocalyptic destruction.

Indeed, as knee-jerk horror goes, this is miles above the ordinary. Fresnadillo's style and the grim subtext beneath it carry a punch that few horror sequels aspire to. For many people, that's enough to recommend it, and judging by some of the other genre garbage being prepped for us this summer, you could certainly do a lot worse. For me, however, I just couldn't get past the moments when it settled for the easy way out -- when it compromised rather than live up to the immense possibilities within its reach. 28 Weeks Later holds itself to the same standards as its brilliant predecessor, but those very standards also accentuate its shortcomings... which ironically wouldn't stand out in a lesser film. Good? Bad? As always, that's a matter of opinion. I choose to respect its pedigree and ask it why it couldn't have done better, rather than judge it by lesser films whose success could never hope to match a "failure" such as this.

Review published 05.11.2007.

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