The golden age of horror: 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later (2003/2007)

Chris: I’ve found that folks love to talk about 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later. That makes sense. Those two movies played a large part in helping put put zombie culture at the forefront of 21st century horror. They helped lever zombie everything into our current cultural lexicon. The problem I have with typical discussions of these films that I’ve been subjected to is that everyone seems to want to talk about the least-interesting thing about them.

After the jump, they’re zombies; deal with it

Chris: I suppose it’s somewhat necessary to hash this out early, this question of whether these are proper zombie movies. They absolutely are. OK, sure, the monsters aren’t technically dead. They don’t shuffle, they run. Sprint, even. Traumatic brain injury doesn’t seem to be the sole method of killing them, either. I’ll grant all those points. What makes the infected in the Days movies serve as proper zombies is the way they’re created. It’s a disease, transmitted from one to another that makes anyone who contracts it into a monster. Survivors risk seeing family, lovers, and best friends turned into the murderous creatures, and have to act against them swiftly or risk being turned themselves. An early scene with Selena and Mark underscores this with a perfect zombie movie tradition–the necessary killing an afflicted buddy.

Jason: These are some terrifying assed zombies. I mean, we’ve seen running zombies before but not quite like this.

Chris: A little historical context is in order here, I think. When 28 Days Later hit the screen, zombies weren’t nearly the ubiquitous horror presence they are now. Despite the release of Cemetery Man in 1996 (one of the few great horror films of that decade), zombies were on a creative hiatus. Movies that featured them seemed more like platforms for mindless, gory gross-outs with little to recommend them.

28 Days Later revitalized the genre by doing something simple and obvious. It starts with a straightforward but compelling story from novelist Alex Garland. It adds in a confident, skillful bit of directing from future Oscar-winner Danny Boyle. It completes the trifecta with outstanding acting performances from a talented cast. All of this elevates the film above anything we’ve seen before in zombie movies, but it never turns precious, either. Boyle is an earthy director unafraid to splash into the muck. That quality informs the film and gives us all the blood and gore we’d expect from a zombie movie. It just does it in a way that feels organic to the story being told.

Jason: First, I didn’t know it was Danny Boyle! He’s a very talented director that, as far as I know, hasn’t created anything less than great. On to the zombies – I must admit that I’m always going to be more of a fan of the slow, shambling zombie over the speedier ones, but both are absolutely horrifying. The slow zombies are a perfect representation of the finality of the human condition. You can run for a while, but one day you’ll slip. Or get tired. The speedy zombies don’t really allow for anything other than base fear – fight or flight.

Both horrors are real enough, it just depends on what the storyteller wants their audience to take away after the final credits roll.

Chris: There are three things that 28 Days Later does especially well. The first is the now-famous camera shots of Jim padding through deserted London at the start of the movie. That sequence and the equally effective scenes with Frank’s taxi cruising down deserted highways towards Manchester are wonderful. In those shots, we feel the dread tinged with sadness and perhaps even excitement of the characters. The deserted world is a frightening but maybe also exhilarating place to be if you’re a survivor.

Jason: The scenes of London are my favorite part of the movie. Very little drives home the horror of Jim’s new situation like those desolate streets. However, that intro part does make me wonder how much of an influence 28 Days Later had on The Walking Dead as they both start in a very similar fashion. The movie pre-dates the comics by a matter of months. If you haven’t seen The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later, they both begin with the main character coming out of a coma in an empty hospital.

Chris: I’ve long wondered who stole from whom. Perhaps it’s just weird coincidence? In any event, the second thing that I think deserves heavy praise is Boyle’s use of music throughout the film. Though he dips into a bit of indie rock here and there, a lot of the soundtrack is classical music and opera, and it’s used to buttress and contrast scenes of great beauty and brutality both.

Rob: Yep! Leave it to the Brits (both Boyle and Edgar Wright) to lay some killer soundtrack selections on top of their zombie mayhem. Those post-rock crescendos are the perfect score for Jim’s dawning terror.

Chris: The third and final kudos I want to toss at this movie involves just how plausibly frightening the origin of the virus is. In almost every other zombie film, we join the deadly pandemic in progress, with zombies already stalking the land. The typical zombie flick may give us vague snippets of origin stories for the plague, and usually there’s some sort of alien space woo-woo involved. Here, the opening scene with the animal rights guerillas and the chimps feels like it could happen. I’m sure that the “rage virus” is all as much hokum as meteors bearing reanimating space germs, but whatever. Garland’s origin story–and Boyle’s decision to begin the film with it–have the feel of being possible, and that’s what matters. That it makes the zombies living humans who’ve just had some vital part of their brains attacked instead of being undead fuels that notion for me.

Rob: I have a real love/hate relationship with 28 Days Later. I was absolutely floored by the first two-thirds of the film which felt so fresh and masterfully handled. But I felt severely let down by the final section after they arrive at the military base. I did not want or need that plot turn involving rape where humans are the ‘real’ monsters. Actually, I was quite enjoying those other monsters, the rage-infected zombies! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where my enjoyment took such a severe nosedive. But on balance, I still love the film.

Chris: I’d agree to an extent, perhaps. I think the movie definitely changes tone and loses some of the dread created by those quick-cut snap-cam zooms that represented imminent infected attacks previously in the film. If you wanted to argue that Garland’s script loses the melody here by trying to work in some social commentary, I wouldn’t gainsay it. What the military camp does give us, however, is the information on perhaps how humanity can prevail in the end. That sets up maybe the most audacious thing that Boyle does in the movie: he dares to give a zombie film a happy ending.

Rob: Danny Boyle is one of those rare directing talents who can do anything, any genre, while still retaining his distinct voice and style. Without him, I thought the sequel had very little to offer.

Chris: I think I disagree, and come here to praise, rather than bury the sequel. 28 Weeks Later continues the story of the first film, although as Rob mentions both Garland and Boyle are both gone (they get executive producer credits) and the cast is completely new. Whereas the first movie felt like a small, character-driven zombie film with some perhaps forced commentary on societal breakdown, 28 Weeks Later puts that breakdown front and center. It opens with a brilliant sequence at a cottage with a group of survivors. The film uses this opening to remind us of the terrors of the rage virus and the relentlessness of those infected by it. This is a harrowing, powerful sequence. There’s a shot with our new protagonist, Don, fleeing the house and infected seem to be coming from everywhere, swarming over a hilltop in terrifying numbers. As a movie-starter, it’s a phenomenal, adrenaline burst of an opener. That particular scene does more to convey the existential horror of the zombies in this universe than anything in the original film. As a viewer, it also puts us on notice: Boyle may be gone, but we’re still in good hands here with the youthful Spanish director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.


Chris: It’s a smart directing decision to make this a different kind of movie from the original. 28 Days Later feels more micro in nature, with its focus on the four people fleeing London. The sequel changes things by being far more macro. We get a feel for the science of the virus, the containment strategy and the greater world at large. Even within this larger scope, I felt like Fresnadillo did a smart thing by giving time to Don and his fractured family, and letting them be the catalyst that drives things forward. Robert Carlyle’s haunted performance as the flawed father Don comes front and center here. He makes a decision no one should ever have to make in the opening cabin sequence, and his unease when lying to his kids about what happened to mum is palpable. When he’s told that his wife is in fact alive, his face is a map of betrayal and fear and love and regret.

Being the sequel to a successful new franchise, Fresnadillo is given a bigger budget here, and generally uses it to spectacular effect. The firebombing of Dog Island is both thrilling and chilling to watch. The deserted streets call back nicely to the original without ever explicitly copying them. A stunning sequence with a helicopter gives us all the zombie gore we could ever want, but once again it fully serves the plot and story. The cast is also solid. In addition to Carlyle, Jeremy Renner gives us a great rendition of a Jeremy Renner character here. Both of the actors playing the kids are equally up to the task.

Not to say there aren’t some miscues that crop up here and there in 28 Weeks Later. The overuse of an infected Don seems like the most egregious example. There’s no reason that he needs to be the alpha semi-cognitive zombie at the end of the film. Fresnadillo allows him to break the rules of the infected and I’m not sure there was a need for it. Perhaps they’re trying to make a point on what a crappy father Don is. He’s abandoned his wife an reintroduced the deadly epidemic into the green zone, and now he’s personally going to try to kill his own kids. If that’s the case it’s a point that feels a little forced and egregious.

28 Weeks Later doesn’t end as audaciously as its predecessor. In proper zombie apocalypse tradition there are no happy endings this time around. Fresnadillo hews closer as well to the great zombie movie tradition by happily killing off his main characters. Not that this sequel is a stranger to audacity, though. If the spread of the rage virus to the continent causes the ultimate downfall of humanity in the 28 Days/Weeks world, give this movie credit for having imperiled the human race with a single kiss.

(Both movies are available to rent or own digitally from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)