Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
I first heard about plans for a sequel 28 Days Later in the context of an announcement of the formation of Fox Atomic, a new shingle dedicated to the teen market. And Danny Boyle wouldn't be returning. Neither would Alex Garland. Or any of the original cast members. I figured a textbook Hollywood Bastardization was in the offing complete with boo-scares subbed in for genuine horror, maybe some blandly attractive early-20s leads, lots of explosions, the whole shitty schmear.
I feel like I've been saying this a lot about horror movies lately, but boy, was I ever wrong. Simply put, this is probably the most brutal, most nihilistic, saddest major-studio horror film I've ever seen. It's also beautifully shot, powerfully acted, and very, very scary. And it hammers home the notion that any of us can fail, catastrophically, in the face of horror and death harder almost than one can tolerate.
I liked it better than the original. Go see it.
Okay, now that that's out of the way, the SPOILERS will commence. Caveat lector.
Ah, how to begin? As with Hostel, I was so taken aback with how strongly I reacted to this film, how much I liked it, how deeply it resonated with what is important to me in the horror genre, how much it moved me, that it took me several days after seeing it to feel up to the task of writing about it, and another several days to recharge enough to finish it. I started this post (ill, up past my bedtime, this past Tuesday, five days after seeing the movie) mostly because I felt like I was slipping in through a very narrow, rapidly closing window between times when my thoughts would be incoherently fresh and incoherently faded. I got about halfway through and gave up, exhausted, revisiting it only now that the new weekend is upon me and I can devote the time and energy needed to say everything (as well as the hours to sleep it off).
So, let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. If for some bizarre reason you watch movies with my approach to them in mind, it was probably obvious to you by the conclusion of the opening sequence that 28 Weeks Later had already hit my specific post-apocalyptic horror button squarer and harder than any other movie I can think of. Don is presented with the choice of trying (and probably failing, and dying in the process) to save his wife or running and saving his own hide, and he chooses the latter, and she sees him do it and dies knowing he's abandoned her.
Well, as far as I'm concerned you could end the movie right there.
That, that is the fear, the terror, the gnawing abyss of horror at the heart of the entire genre, for me if for no one else. It was really the topic of the entirety of my own stab at post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, The Outbreak, if you recall. Here's how I put it when Sam Costello interviewed me about the blog:
a big part of what I wanted to address in The Outbreak was the notion that tragedy and catastrophe and death are not inherently ennobling, and that instead of being Jake Weber's character from Dawn of the Dead (or, on the flipside, some total nutjob psychopath a la some of the bad guys from The Stand) we're just as likely to be the asshole guy who ditches them when the bus flips over, or Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, or (this might have been the biggest touchstone of all for me) Bill Paxton's Marine character from Aliens. We might react in a really venal way, we might be mean or cowardly, we might just fall apart.... my biggest fear, my sort of existential fear, is that there are some things you can do or mistakes you can make that can never, ever be fixed. You can't make up for them, you can't make amends for them, you can't undo them, you can't fix them. You're left with the consequences for the rest of your life. The guilt of that haunts me and frightens me more than any zombie. So that's really what the blog became about--finding and focusing on anything I'd done in my life that had me frightened that it might be irrevocable and unsolvable and disastrous.
To discover that this was going to be the lynchpin and prime motivator of an entire zombie film? O joy, o nihilistic rapture. I'll admit I was a little troubled by his said-to-himself reaction to what had just happened at the end of the sequence: Instead of breaking down sobbing, as I probably would have had him do, he let loose a torrent of "Shit! Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Oh shit!", like a housecat owner who just realized he'd left the window open with no screen in place. In my theatre at least, this was treated like a laugh line, and I got nervous as to the ultimate approach the filmmakers would take. But in retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have been. Perhaps the verbal inadequacy of his response to the tragedy was commensurate with the moral inadequacy of his reaction to its onset?
But let's pause here for a moment: I don't mean to judge him. In fact, I refuse. And if that makes me responsible for the decline and fall of Western civilization, so be it. Seriously, I thought almost instantly of the astoundingly callous reaction in some circles to the Virgina Tech shootings, where the perceived failure of the students to Cowboy Up and take down the heavily armed shooter with their bare hands was deemed by commentators predominantly of a conservative/interventionist stripe as indicative of the feminization or wussification of American culture, or of straight-up cowardice--as was any attempt to point out that there's no way for anyone to know how they'd react in a situation like that unless they were in it. But that was all brushed aside and lambasted and ridiculed since people had Clint Eastwood fantasies to live out.
So when I saw Robert Carlyle's Don sprinting away from that house and his wife, I didn't think "what a bastard." I thought, "what would I do?" If I chose to stay and try to help, would it be out of some highly developed sense of bravery or morality--or, Hostel-style, simple terror of having to live with the guilt of not having helped?
As I said, the film could have ended there. But it didn't, and because it didn't and because Robert Carlyle had top billing I assumed that at some climactic point Don would have to make this choice again, probably involving his children, and this time he'd chose to stay and try to help. And I figured there'd be a good chance that this would be the wrong choice this time around and his attempts would be in vain or would even be worse than not trying to help. But yeah, that's what I thought would happen.
Wrong. Don's wife Alice turns up alive. It should be noted that she does so courtesy of a plot device, a twist in the mechanics of the rage infection, which is one of the big differences between this film and the original. In Days, the main characters were just random people of no particular geopolitical importance; there were 8 million stories in the naked post-apocalypse, and this was one of them. In Weeks, the four-person family unit who collectively comprised the lead roles are, in essence, the most important people on the planet, capable of radically altering the course of the virus's progression. Save for a fleeting fool's hope about the soldiers in Days, we have no reason to believe that Jim and Selena et al will find a cure, or on the flipside spread the virus to the wider world. In Weeks, either could happen. So anyway, now I find myself believing that this will be a film technically about those possibilities, but mainly about the family's attempts to mend from the horror of what happened between Don and Alice, and what happened to them both because of his choice.
Infecting Don was a shocking move, one straight out of the Psycho playbook. (Why is it still so surprising, even now, by the way? Is the language of cinema that deeply ingrained in us that we take main characters not dying until the final reel, if at all, as an article of faith?) But it's more shocking, in its way, because he doesn't die a propos of nothing, he doesn't die because of someone else's psychodrama working itself out. He dies because he seeks forgiveness from the woman he loves--and she, loving him, grants it. In other words, they die--ultimately, the world dies--because they did the right thing.
That really only had the chance to strike me after the transformed Don beat his wife to death. Can you remember a scene in a mainstream film more brutal, more savage, more unrelentingly awful than this? Both Boyle in Days and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo up until this point in Weeks had chosen to obscure most of the infected-on-uninfected violence with grainy images, quick cuts, and flailing movements. But here--after a masterful transformation by Carlyle that truly captured the tragedy of his infection, making the rage feel like an outward manifestation of the trauma his betrayal of his wife and the irrevocable damage it had now obviously done--the violence is brought home in clear, relatable terms. Here, we have a husband beating his horrified and helpless wife to death with his fists. As she screams and cries, he puts out her eyes with his thumbs--an "I'll see you and raise" response to Jim's execution of a soldier gone wild by the same means in Days, one where the equivalent roles are reversed and it's the soldier blinding and braining Jim. I could hear audience members turning away from the screen, and I thought, "Every decision is the wrong decision. He was wrong to abandon her, and she was wrong to survive, and he was wrong to beg forgiveness, and she was wrong to forgive him, and they were wrong to love each other. In some cases it was wrong for moral reasons, in some cases it was wrong for physical reasons they couldn't possibly anticipate, but in all cases it was wrong. It's all a wash."
This is not necessarily new territory for a post-apocalyptic zombie film. For some reason this fact is frequently overlooked--or more likely overwhelmed by the film's powerful sociopolitical subtext, even as it intriguingly complicates that subtext--but that's more or less the point of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Ben, the film's handsome, self-assured, intelligent, charismatic lead, is dead wrong when he insists that his band of survivors stay on their abandoned house's ground floor rather than hole up in the basement, and again when he sends some of them out to gas up a nearby truck to help them get out of there rather than sit tight; Cooper, the ugly, hot-tempered asshole, actually had the right idea (and Ben pretty much kills him for it, and we cheer).
Somewhat predictably, this point is once again being ignored by many viewers of Weeks. My friend Jim Treacher (who, incidentally, spent a shitload of time and energy and sanity trying in vain to argue the "the VaTech victims were cowards" crowd out of their moral degeneracy) notes that mainstream film critics (surprise, surprise!) latched on to the movie's obvious political overtones--it is, after all, about a disastrous failed occupation of a foreign country by the American military--to the exclusion of all other considerations (including, in one memorably ridiculous case, the gender of one of the leads). Jim notes that if they'd succeeded in their war-crime drive to exterminate every civilian in London, infected and uninfected alike, the Americans would have saved the world. In the end it's the soldiers who don't act brutally--the sniper who abandons his post, the helicopter pilot who disobeys regulations--whose actions unleash the infection upon the rest of the world. The people who do the right thing are wrong; the people who do the wrong thing are right.
But this in turn overlooks the colossal mistakes and failures that created the situation in which brutality is the correct course of action in the first place. And here's where the political daggers cut deepest. In normal circumstances I'd pick the lapses in judgement and basic common sense by the military characters apart as poor writing. You recover a survivor from the hot zone and fail to leave an armed guard to watch her while you test her for the infection? Your big plan for an outbreak within the quarantine zone is to lock all the civilians in a parking garage in the dark with the doors unguarded? You firebomb the island on which the outbreak is located without blowing all the bridges and tunnels first? You don't go nuclear the second the extent of your failure becomes evident? But here's the thing: In a world where the consequences of dismal planning and gobsmacking incompetence stare us in the face everywhere from New Orleans to Sadr City, would any of these fuck-ups actually surprise you? I sat there and thought "this isn't terribly far-fetched, is it?" and found that as saddening and frightening as nearly anything in the film. The message is summed up in a bold, stunning editing choice: an ostentatiously slow wipe (!) that gradually replaces a shot of the cold, haughty, ultimately useless military commander, locked in a bunker and resigned to his failure, with a shot of the streets swarming with infected. He blew it; he's irrelevant; we never hear from him again.
So while we're on the subject, let's talk about the military brutality. It truly is brutal, matching the assaults in Children of Men in intensity (if replacing that film's continuous takes with rapid-fire (pun intended) editing). Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (and it's criminal I'm just mentioning him for the first time now) uses the limited sight and sound range of both the snipers and the targets to gradually escalate the chaos, snapshot by snapshot, into a cacophony of bullets and death; the effect is breathtaking. Later the use of fire to purge the area is depicted with unflinching frankness, epitomized in the sequence where heroic AWOL sniper Doyle (played with understated kindness by Dahmer's Jeremy Renner, whose still-waters-run-deep face should be seen in as many films as possible from here on out if there is a God in Heaven) is burned alive by his fellow troops: We watch him ignite, burn, flail, fall, die, wishing the whole time that the filmmakers would spare us the next second.
But no one is spared of anything, at all. "No one" in the sense that this isn't an anti-American film per se, or only. Yes, the resonance with Iraq is intentional, obvious, and accurate. But there's no future in England's dreaming either; the statue of General James Wolfe that gazes silently as the Isle of Dogs burns and the dead monarchs (including Prince Charles) who grin atop a carousel that will never again carry laughing children on the backs of its horses appear to implicate the self-regarding grandeur of this earth, this realm in its own demise as well. The poster for American punk act NOFX's protest record The War on Errorism that adorns young Tammy's wall goes to show what all that amounts to in the face of armageddon as well.
But "no one" also in the sense of the audience. It's not an overstatement to say that this movie is intended to assault us. Don's murder of Alice, Doyle's immolation...awful, unwatchable, inescapable. And in the climax, we ourselves are placed behind the "camera" of a sniper rifle's scope as it's used to bash selfless military doctor Scarlet's head in, over, and over, and over, and over, and over. See? says the film. See.
That the climax revolves around just four people is part of the film's genuinely innovative structure. After the initial burst of gut-wrenching violence and terror that kicks off the film and provides its back story, a long, peaceful interlude follows. Once the violence erupts again, it balloons almost instantly to a massive level, featuring thousands of infected and victims and soldiers in a chaotic free-for-all with the protagonists in the middle of it all. But from then on, the scale of the set pieces gets smaller and smaller, with fewer and fewer infected involved. The final two lethal encounters--between the protagonists and the soldiers, between the protagonists and one last infected--are quiet, even intimate.
The line from the initial explosion to those moments is a straight one. Unlike Days, Weeks doesn't alternate scenes of action and horror with ones of passion and humor. There's no campfire near a field full of horses, no romp through an abandoned supermarket with pop music playing on the soundtrack, no toasting with creme de menthe, no teenage girls getting entertainingly stoned while all hell breaks loose. Once the infection returns, the movie is relentless. I've heard some viewers bemoan this relative lack of poignancy, as one message-board friend of mine aptly put it. But the trade-off is the urgency: All the characters want to do is survive. That the characters haven't bonded the way Jim and Selena and Frank and Hannah did and still want each other to survive is perhaps the one glimmer of hope afforded in the entire film.
And that will bring us back to Don. Another complaint I've heard is his placement in the narrative as "the king zombie" (another apt description, care of a coworker this time). He's this outbreak's patient zero, and he shows up to coincidentally, repeatedly, and improbably menace his own children. Doesn't bother me. Even putting aside the fact that Saint George of Romero went there all the time (Johnny coming to get Barbara, Flyboy showing the zombies the way to the hidden chamber, Bub bringing down Rhodes... (and hey, now that you mention it, he replaced his entire cast from film to film too)), I think we can sacrifice logistics for poetry occasionally, can't we? Especially in a genre as thick with allegory as the zombie tale. Don's irreparable betrayal courses through the veins of this movie like the rage virus through the veins of the infected; in both cases there's no cure, and that's as it should be. That's why the film's most powerful scene is the one where the two bloodstreams mix: Don's transformation. Here at last we see the Rage take hold of a person whose reasons to be full of rage have been made painfully clear to us (and to him). Like Renner, Carlyle had previously starred in an overlooked horror mini-gem, Ravenous. In a movie loaded with powerful performances (from Renner, Carlyle, Catherine McCormack, Imogen Poots--I admit to occasionally wishing Rose Byrne were Sarah Polley, but that may not really be Byrne's fault), this is the finest scene. Carlyle coaxex from within the freshly infected Don the self-hatred, the abject terror and disgrace he feels toward his failure, and externalizing it, like it's those feelings that possess him rather than a sci-fi disease. Better to kill everything and everyone than face that failure. Better to embrace it than ever entertain the too easily dashable hope of escaping it. This Guardian article on Fresnadillo and the film puts it this way:
Fresnadillo says he is dramatising a statement of Aristotle's: "rage occurs when a person gives back their own suffering".
Winding down now: I discovered that Guardian piece just now, after the entirety of the preceding portion of the post had been written. In the article Fresnadillo discusses a lot of the same things I did here: domestic abuse, Virginia Tech, survivor's guilt, the point that the capacity for committing horrific acts is in everyone and not just in one's own pet target demographic. (Again, it's no wonder I liked a film that's so obviously on my same wavelength.) The thoughtfulness of the ideas he's presenting in the film threaten to overwhelm the strength of the images, which, again, is criminal. Occasionally when I watch a horror movie there's a moment of such clearly smart, skilled filmmaking--something that goes above and beyond the simple need to be scary--that I say to myself "Okay, this is a real film we're watching here." In the case of The Descent, for example, it was that hospital-corridor collapse of grief; here, it was the overhead shot in Don and family's new apartment. There's plenty more where that came from (and so begins the trademark STC List of Stuff I Really Liked): The hazmat-suited soldiers emerging from the gas; the way Doyle's sniper scope lingers on the family longer than he does on the couple having sex; infected Don's profile in the foreground while the fire rages in the background; the line of infected appearing out of the tall grass; the statue shot; the carousel; the J-horror crawl of Alice from behind the bed; the Silence of the Lambs/Blair Witch nightvision sequence; the empty stadium; the thumbs in the eyes. They all linger. And the final shot, needless to say, was perfect and inevitable given the message of the movie that led up with it. The world is betrayed with a kiss, and it's all a wash.