28 WEEKS LATER directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, written by Fresnadillo, Rowan Joffe and Jésus Olmo, with Robert Carlyle, Catherine McCormack, Jeremy Renner and Rose Byrne. A Fox Atomic release. 95 minutes. Opens Friday (May 11). Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
At some point in most zombie movies the disparate and the desperate - those who have yet to become infected and chow down on their nearest neighbour - seek refuge in either a secluded farmhouse or a suburban shopping mall (or, in the case of Shaun Of The Dead, a pub, which is as sensible a place as any to make a last stand against an army of the undead).
Here, Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) intentionally opens this sequel to 28 Days Later in precisely such a clichéd locale, a boarded up country cottage, where a quiet candlelit dinner plays out among a handful of survivors. At least, until a few snarling, red-eyed guests drop by for a quick bite.
In only a few ferocious, frenzied moments - the most intense to reach the screen this year - the makeshift family is eviscerated, decimated and reduced to one, Don (Robert Carlyle), the patriarch. The moment he abandons his wife (Catherine McCormack) to the monstrous hordes is a breath-sucking gut-punch that tells you immediately that no one is safe. In distilling the gory glory of the original before the opening credits even roll, Fresnadillo sends a message: if you think you've seen it all before, you're clearly mistaken.
Where Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's original 28 Days Later was a grisly, nerve-shredding thrillride, the sequel ups the ante with aggressively nihilistic glee and simple blunt trauma. These sprinting, snarling, blood-spewing zombies make the inky and equally toothy Spider-villain Venom look like an inflatable pool toy and George Romero's loping undead seem rather quaint by comparison.
Fresnadillo takes what was so memorable about the original - running zombies and that deserted London setting - and jettisons the rest, namely the clunky last act set on a country estate inhabited by not entirely sane soldiers.
The film is set 28 weeks after the initial outbreak. The zombie cannibals have exhausted their food supply and died of starvation. Life in England is beginning to return to normal, although the tourism industry may never fully recover.
Having survived the opening credits, Don now lives in a "green zone" guarded by the U.S. Army and he's been reunited with his kids (played by the Harry Potter-sounding Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots), whose DNA may hold the key to curing the zombie plague. When the siblings sneak out of the city to visit their old home, well, the shit quickly hits the helicopter blades. Robert Rodriguez may have gotten there first with his zombie-chopping chopper in Grindhouse, but never has a field of flesh eaters been so efficiently mowed down, like dandelions beneath a John Deere.
While the digitally shot 28 Days Later had the smudged look of a Polaroid left in the rain, Fresnadillo and cinematographer Enrique Chediak go for a crisper, sharper image. But they still rely on the same palsied whiplash camera movements that gave the original its nerve-jangling edge.
Like any good undead outing, you can dig through the viscera for bloody bits of metaphoric frisson. George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead held a funhouse mirror to the societal turbulance of the Vietnam era, while his Dawn Of The Dead reflected the rampant consumerism a decade later. Even the original 28 Days Later could be viewed as an environmental cautionary tale about the dangers of fucking with Mother Nature at a time when SARS was grabbing headlines.
28 Weeks Later has more up its scabby sleeve than a few goosebumps. Presenting a reconstructionist London occupied by a trigger-happy American military unwilling to distinguish between the infected and the merely panicked, it's easy to draw real-world parallels, although the film doesn't go so far as to equate zombie cannibalism with Islamofascism.
Not that you'll have the wherewithall to think about that while you're white-knuckling the armrest.