I don’t know why I watch zombie movies. They always kill off characters I love. Or in the case of 28 Weeks Later (the 2007 sequel to Danny Boyle’s fiercely scary 28 Days Later), it’s not just the characters but the actors who play them. You basically know that the people played by Rose Byrne and Jeremy Renner—an army doctor and sniper, respectively—are toast, well before they actually get run through the cinematic toaster oven. Whenever an actor I love dies on screen, part of me turns cold on the movie. “Well, who cares what happens now?” I think/exclaim/moan.
As sequels go, 28 Weeks Later is pretty strong. There are the expected irksome plot inconsistencies, but it’s a compelling hour-and-a-half, rife with infected-zombie-carnage and steeped in the apocalyptic mania that possessed the popular culture (not for the first time) during the previous decade. The film opens in the English countryside, where a handful of people are barricaded inside a farmhouse, hiding from the infected humans, who have turned into raging viral cannonballs. One drop of their blood in your mouth, one scratch of their fingernails on your skin, and you become one of them, changing over in mere seconds. And they run—how they run—like the dickens. The thing about uber-strong, hyper-active, running zombies is, there’s virtually nothing you can do. They take what already amounts to nihilistic bleakness and turn it up a notch.
Shortly after the film’s intense prologue, the U.S. military has contained the virus and is now in the process of restoring London. Survivors are being returned to their fair city to a specially contained district, where they’re under constant military supervision. Naturally, the zombie virus reinserts itself into the scenario and all hell breaks loose, forcing another band of survivors, including the sniper and the doctor, to run for cover. But this time, two of the group—a brother and sister—may possess the key to permanent extinction of the virus, in their potentially immune bloodstream.
What follows is a generally satisfying blend of the predictable and the terrifying. The U.S. military presence (the dubious saviors of the first film) goes from heroic to monstrous in moments, and it’s easy to read a lot of geo-political commentary here. 2007 was, of course, in the midst of the war in Iraq. Jeremy Renner was two years away from his career-making performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. He was made for these kinds of parts. Renner has a natural toughness that suits him when he plays a cop or a sniper or what-have-you, but he also possesses a deeply humanizing levity and tenderness, which he can apply to any scene with apparent ease. He’s a marvelous actor (the most likable performer in 2013’s American Hustle). And Rose Byrne is always fascinating to watch on screen. She’s made a name for herself as a comic actress of late (giving gem-performances in Spy, Neighbors, and Bridesmaids), and it’s more proof that actresses can be the best comedians when you see how versatile she is, capable of carrying out the lunacy of Spy or the ferocity of this little number, a perhaps forgettable but ultimately very disturbing movie that deepens the terror of its predecessor.
I do have to mention the shaky camera effect. Danny Boyle’s original also employed this irritating technique, and it had me rather perturbed here too. What exactly are we supposed to get out of not being able to interpret the action of a sequence? Is the shaky camera simply a way around doing good camera-work? My suspicion is that it’s also a cheap way to create a sense of chaos, putting the screws on the audience as much as possible. But to that I say, go back and watch some of the masters and see if they employ the damn shaky camera technique.
Nevertheless, the director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, does mostly good work here. 28 Weeks Later is no embarrassment. It’s entertaining for those of us who like a good zombie flick, and it’s likely to freak you out if you’re at all concerned about this kind of thing happening for real. If it does, I think I’d follow Jeremy Renner and Rose Byrne. They react well in a crisis situation.