Monday, July 14, 2008

A Frank Review of "28 Days Later..." (2002) & "28 Weeks Later..." (2007)

The Short Version? Zombie apocalypse, sans "zombies."
What Is It? Horror.
Who Is In It?. "Days:" Cillian Murphy. Chris Eccleston. "Weeks:" Robert Carlyle
Should I See It? Yeah... alright... damn it.

My favorite movie monster is the Living Dead. Usually, I just say zombie, but semantics are important here. You see, in the golden age of Hollywood, zombies were a reasonable approximation of the zuvembi of Caribbean origins. In "voodoo," zombies were the reanimated dead, put to work as soulless slaves by a "witch doctor." Research has suggested there was such a thing, but rather than the dead, these slaves were actually "junkies" strung out on particularly nasty drugs. This being the case, zombie's gotta eat. According to myth, zombies couldn't eat meat, salt, or anything particularly flavorful, as it would awaken their taste buds and their minds to the fact they ought to be dead, and that's where they'd go again. The popular notion of zombies was forever altered in 1968, when the film "Night of the Ghouls" had its name changed to "...Living Dead." Romero and Russo introduced these truly vacant creatures as our loved ones turned mindless and hungry for warm human flesh. This opened the international floodgates for apocalyptic cannibal horror, and while I don't recall whether "Night" referred to its creatures as zombies, that's exactly what they were dubbed.

I explain this because screenwriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle steadfastly denied that their "28 Days Later..." was a zombie movie, but instead a tale of violent masses infected with a virulent horror known only as "Rage." This is utter and complete bullshit. The trailer below for their film even claims "Danny Boyle reinvents zombie horror." Again, bullshit. Like "Resident Evil," the story steals liberally and near wholesale from a variety of sources, but unlike the much maligned Paul Anderson picture, it is defiantly unapologetic about the matter, and pompous in its denial of derivation. Innovations? Like when the soldiers become so loathsome you begin rooting for the zombies and the few civilians the troops plan to rape and murder. Right up to featuring a named "hero" zombie, that movie was filmed in 1985 as "Day of the Dead" by George Romero. Fast zombies? Russo's "Return of the Living Dead" had some speedy brain suckers in 1985. Not that it matters, as Tobe Hooper had already done "Lifeforce," which ends with diseased masses of ghoulish "vampires" rampaging the devastated streets of London. Turning the supernatural "zombies" into the scientific "infected?" Romero did that also, in "The Crazies." There's the flashback monologues that help invest you in the characters and horror of the situation, while not straining your budget, but Romero did the same thing in most of his "Dead" movies. So Boyle did a zombie movie, Garner pieced a script together from other zombie movies, neither will own up, and the movie isn't a Tarantinoesque salvage job so much as a variation on themes from equally good or better films.

The part that drives me nuts is that "28 Days Later..." is a good film. The performances are solid, the audience responds to the characters, the frenetic cinematography sells the terror and the movie glides right over budgetary restrictions. If its creators weren't so galling in their plagiarism and invented schism between "zombie" and "infected," I'd be more willing to give it credit. So your mob of vicious, mindless killers beats and tears people apart without the eating of intestines. This is hardly reinvention. Also, the highly effective dread early in the film gives way to suspense and finally fatigue as the story progresses. I appreciated the genre rebelling ending, but by that point I'd lost interest. I do love the music though. Shit, okay, Boyle reinvented "zombie horror" with a better soundtrack. Happy now?

After my less than complimentary review of its predecessor, you might wonder why I would have seen the sequel. I guess the scale of the production seemed impressive, and so much source material for stolen plot had been mined last time, I figured they had to try something new. I was right, in that they found new avenues to plunder, seeing as much of the tone of "Weeks" is right out of the new wave of zombie pictures that followed in "Days" wake.

Like Cameron with "Aliens" (not to mention "Resident Evil,") the focus shifts from a few isolated civilians surviving to a heavily armed military response to the alien threat. Like Romero's "Day" and "Land of the Dead," we are presented with a reoccurring "hero" zombie that motivates much of the action and aids in the final resolution. Like "The Omega Man," we've got the immune human whose blood can potentially cure a plagued people, and like "Return of the Living Dead Part 2," our guide into zombie land is a prepubescent boy (though I wasn't sure for a ways into the movie, as he was something of a mongoloid Taylor Hansen.) Not to mention, with its propulsive pacing, explosions and constant child endangerment, it was pretty obvious someone had taken Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" to heart. The characters are cardboard, except for Robert Carlyle, who gives one of his best performances yet. I had massive problems with the contrived situations and painfully obvious set-ups, but ultimately, I enjoyed the film as a no-brainer. It is more intense, and more consistently so, than the original (while aping Boyle's style to maximum effect.) As a zombie fan, I found this movie far less antagonizing than the first, but it is more of an experience than a story, and one I'm unlikely to repeat.

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