As before, the virus is fast. Introduced in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the human-concocted bug is transmitted via bodily fluids — blood, saliva, tears — infecting hosts with incalculable, uncontrollable fury. The eyes go red and, within seconds, the victim is implacably murderous. Infected and enraged, the zombie-like victims are killers, their rage driving them to turn everyone into themselves. Until, at last, no one is left uninfected.
At the start of 28 Weeks Later, a small enclave of survivors clings to one another, worried and supportive, occasionally impatient. When Karen (Emily Beecham) hopes that her intrepid boyfriend, gone forth from their haven into the world of England in search of help, her companions insist that he must be dead or worse, that survival “outside” is impossible. Just then, a child comes knocking, battering the door they’ve boarded up, frightened by his own parents (“My mom, my dad,” he gasps, “They’re trying to kill me!”). This is the first shift in tone for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s film from the original. The mighty, if immediately doomed, effort by the father to save his child from his infected self here gives way to a simpler, more brutal truth: the emotional bonds of family mean nothing in the face of instant biological change.
This lesson is brought home more forcibly in the next few moments, as Don (Robert Carlyle), first doting on his terminally nurturing wife Alice (Catherine McCormack), confronts what seem impossible options: certain death by infected ravaging or a chance at survival, frantic, ignoble, and mortified. He makes the wrong choice, at least terms of monster-action movie heroics. This would be the second shift in tone for this second film. Survivors are selfish, apparently by definition.
Don’s decision does not go unpunished. But the moral universe is intractably skewed in 28 Weeks Later, a film that works hard to reflect the world around it. Once the infected in England have exhausted their food supply — that is, uninfected flesh — they seem to die off. And so a reconstruction process begins. Headed up by the U.S. military, this process is centered in an area of London now termed the “Green Zone,” or Zone One, on the Isle of Dogs, surrounded by water, blockaded and safeguarded by rooftop snipers. They’re standard-issue Yanks, thumbnailed in the forms of buddies Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and Flynn (Harold Perrineau), the first a cocky, fun-loving shooter (he jump-scares his friend repeatedly, acting like a zombie), the second a chopper pilot and father (he keeps his child’s crayon drawing in his cockpit).
Inside the command center, General Stone (Idris Elba) keeps his eyes on surveillance monitors, watching for the slightest indication that infection has reentered the compound. His 500 civilian charges — who walk through the airport past lines of armed, camo-wearing troops, now assigned to “police” the civilians — include Don’s children, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), reentering the country after their loving parents sent them away during the height of contagion. The kids are immediately remarked by Chief Medical Officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne), who believes they’re too young to be among the repopulation contingent. Kids are unpredictable, she reasons, and this mission has to be all about control and anticipation. Scarlet’s concern is, of course, exactly what’s at stake here. By the time she speaks, however, it’s too late.
The group runs through a tunnel as London is being firebombed.
Again, the turning point is family. When the kids break quarantine, slipping away from the Green Zone in order to revisit their home, much like Jim (Cillian Murphy), in the first film, they unknowingly invite tragedy. Their adventure alters and reframes the often poetic details of Jim’s journey, emphasizing the known brutality of her world, opposed to Jim’s exploration of memory and discovery of his own capacity for violence. Tammy begins with a post-fall knowledge, and while she’s not comfortable with it, she acts accordingly, with a kind of ruthlessness born of living in a war zone. When Tammy discovers a body inside a storefront pizza joint (much as Jim did), she gags but still grabs motorbike keys off the stinky corpse. It’s nearly a throwaway moment, but this display of her determination is key, not so much to build plot (which is mostly running from and fighting infecteds) as to establish Tammy’s cheerless awareness. She’s a child of crisis: resolute, appalled, battered by bad choices. Trusting no one, not even her own father, she’s both victim and product of a war without end.
The explicit war part of 28 Weeks Later begins soon after, when the infection sneaks into the Green Zone. At first, Stone’s men target selectively (“Watch out for the friendlies”), but within minutes the situation is “out of control.” Stone declares a Code Red: kill everything. (The virus carrier and her initial transmission to another survivor provide for a dark mini-essay on betrayal and payback, with motives both nihilistic and desperately egoistic.) Still watching his monitors, Stone sees chaos and blood, though not quite so close-up as you do (the different perspectives are neatly juxtaposed by a wipe-edit across Stone’s face, as his view is overwhelmed by on-the-ground mayhem).
The harrowing assaults by increasing numbers of infecteds are rendered by cinematographer Enrique Chediak in bursty, murky, split-second images, illegible except as terror, embodied and assaultive. When the snipers are ordered to shoot everyone, Doyle adopts the expected videogamey perspective (blap blap blap: heads spurting red, arms flying off shoulders), until he spots young Andy, wandering and afraid among the carnage. And with that, the young soldier does a right thing, volunteering to lead a small group of survivors, including Andy, his sister, and Scarlet, to safety, that is, away from the Americans, grappling badly with the un-accomplished mission (their eventual decision to firebomb London draws disconcerting links between WWII and the war in Iraq).
While the theme of soldiers as lethal and relentless as the infecteds repeats Boyle’s film (he produced this one and selected Fresnadillo), here the uniformed threat is specifically U.S. While that point is partly ameliorated by the in loco parentis imperatives undertaken by Doyle and Scarlet, they are hardly able to keep back the monumental firepower of their own institutional affiliation. Against such organized aggression, measly family units — haphazard and spontaneous — have no chance. When Scarlet tries to guide her precious charges (who may carry a biological resistance in their blood) down into a pitch black tube station, she uses her weapon’s night-vision sight, the green filter and supremely constrained frame underscoring the limits of her hope and plan. Monsters lurk everywhere, unseeable in the dark, unstoppable in the light.
Embodying frenzy and inspiring fear, the monsters are at once too literal (see especially, the overused bad dad) and too pervasively metaphorical. Compared to military sent on a mindless rampage, the monsters are almost poignant, their grisly faces and ripped-up bodies more obviously pained than those U.S. representatives arriving in hazmat gear or screaming overhead in smooth-hulled bombers. The comparison is definitively not new: the redneck deputies who shot and burned Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead worked the same concept. Only now, the horror is incessant, commercial, and global.