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Danny Boyle‘s 2002 groundbreaking horror film 28 Days Later single-handedly reinvigorated the zombie movie, and as such, it was only a matter of time before the highly-acclaimed production spawned a sequel. But how do you top a film that came to redefine the genre itself and in the five years between, make something fresh? Not so easy.
Boyle could not direct, committed to a new project, but stayed on as producer while Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, a Spanish filmmaker with only one feature-length film to his name, took the helm in his first English-language project. What Fresnadillo did, was tap into Boyle’s original vision and basically run with it, but amped up the action, creating a much more fast-paced film that is relentlessly tension-filled, as it should be, and manages to craft a sequel that many regard as equal to the first.
The story follows a man named Don (Robert Carlyle), who has come under the protection of the United States Army after they arrive in England after the outbreak as part of a NATO operation to assist in the aftermath. Don is reunited with his two children, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), who were out of the country during the incident. Setting up in the heavily-guarded safe zone on the Isle of Dogs in the River Thames, the three try to cope, but the children miss their real home and mother, whom Don has told a fabrication about in order to protect them.
When a dream inspires Andy to believe she may still be alive, he and Tammy sneak out of the base and make their way to the countryside, where they make a shocking discovery. What follows is a new wave of horror and a terrifying fight for survival as the fast-moving infected resurface in a chaotic crush for fresh victims. A chilling, surprisingly intelligent thriller, 28 Weeks Later never lets up as it ramps up the violence and suspense as humanity once again tries to save itself from destruction. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
A lot of great films use their opening shot to set a hook, with the best creating iconic imagery that have come to define the film themselves. Think of Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws (1974) or Quentin Tarentino‘s Inglorious Basterds (2009), each establishing with sensational storytelling power the tone of their stories and the villain who will drive the narrative. The same goes for Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, a masterstroke of slow burn to madness that sets, like the others, the tone and makes clear that the monsters are back.
It opens on Don and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) who have holed up in a well-barricaded cottage in the outskirts of London along with four other survivors of the original infestation. They live by candlelight and face the possibility that there is no one left untouched outside. That is until a desperate knock on the door upsets the status, followed by the screams of a boy pleading to come inside.
Don opens the door amid debates from the others and lets the panicked boy inside, resealing the door behind him. The child tells of his escape, his turned parents chasing him out of town with other rights behind them and it becomes clear that the boy has led a growing pack of infected right to the cottage. And they are hungry.
They break in through the back, chomping down on one of the women, who turns infected, and suddenly the house is overrun. Alice and the boy race upstairs as Don furiously tries to fend off the swarm, eventually heading to the upper floor himself, finding his wife and the boy in a room with a zombie already inside, it between him and them. Alice screams at Don to help her and the child, but with a horde coming up behind him, he hesitates, looks her in the eye and dashes out, closing the door behind him as she howls in terror.
He leaps out a window in the next room and rolls out into the backyard where the bellowing infected are already crisscrossing the property in scattered packs of ravenous frenzy. Without a breath, Don is running, breaking into the field beyond, heading to the river, behind him, Alice pounding on the glass at him before she disappears into the void behind her. He gives one glance back at her while pacing faster away and is soon set upon by a massive riot of beasts gaining fast. At the river, running as fast as he can, he makes for a small motorboat as the infected reach him and with them in the river, he barely makes it free, the river red with their blood, chewed up by the thrashing propellor speeding away.
Like the aforementioned openings of other films, what’s truly great about the first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later is how this one sequence could rightfully stand on its own as a short film, end right where it does, and be done with it. It’s a powerfully effective piece of filmmaking and serves as a self-contained story, even if does eventually connect later with the rest. And while it might help to know the events of the first film, it’s not necessary, the ambiguity of the setting and the carefully-structured dialogue perfectly provide enough details to ensure we know what’s going on.
What we learn is that Don and Alice are a couple deeply in love, a family with children who they are not sure are safe, assuring themselves that they must be, even though uncertainty lingers with their every word. They kiss, one born more of fear and need for comfort than anything else, but more importantly, it creates a powerful dynamic. These are good people, bound together under horrific circumstances and for the moment, are all they have in the world. Think on that as the scene unfolds.
The house is purposefully kept in shadow, the windows and doors sealed, making the interior feel like a place out of time. In more ways than one, it is, and in every sense of the word. Out. Of. Time. As the small frightened group sits down to a meager meal, there is concern about another who went out for help five days earlier and never returned, a marker for the viewer to understand that these people have been trapped for a short time and that escape is impossible.
The knocking on the door is startling, and when Don opens the door, we realize that it’s the middle of the day as brilliant sunlight streams into the house, creating an odd juxtaposition to the horror cliché the inside of the cabin is working hard to establish. We know the boy is a harbinger of impeding disaster, there’s no way he can’t be, but how, and when? Both those answers come fast. And with bite.
The cacophony of zombie mayhem that follows is particularly traumatizing simply because of how effective the film managed to create a sense of security in the lead up, that these people had worked together to make a shelter and forge a plan to survive. To see it crumble so fast is shocking, and Fresnadillo does right by keeping his camera bouncing around the rooms as if fending off flesh eaters itself.
And so we come to the choice, where Dom decides there’s no saving Alice. It’s devastating, and more so, jarring, wholly stripping away our expectations of what a hero is. In any other film, Don would be diving into the room, battling off the zombies as he guides his wife and the child to safety, maybe even sacrificing himself in doing so, setting up the story around her instead of him. But that doesn’t happen. Not at all. Don, instead runs.
What’s important also to note is that Alice makes a choice as well. With Don, she is able to make an escape, but she breaks from him to go back after the boy, who is hiding in a wardrobe. This echoes her maternal longing for her own absent children, a physical need to protect any child while hers are out of reach. It proves costly.
But this is really about Don, and his seemingly selfish act of self-preservation. We don’t know anything about who he is, only his relationship to Alice and their apparent solid marriage, but his hesitation, and then escape leave us feeling torn about him as our hero, an intended consequence of the scene. But more so, and what makes him more identifiable, is how it has us asking ourselves, what would we do? Ill-equipped to defend against such a number of zombies, the cottage becomes a slaughterhouse, and realizing he has but one chance, he takes it. Would you?
I really like the look he gives Alice as he streaks away in terror, his face wrenched in agony at what he is doing and yet he pushes even harder to put distance between him and her. He’s made his bed and because so shall be smothered in guilt for it, but at least he’ll be alive. Being chased has got to be an unbearable stress, and to be so by a flood of infected has got be unimaginable. Add to that the terrible burden of leaving behind the woman he loves only makes it worse, knowing that in fact, she is probably now among the twisted bodies running along with the others straight at him.
The brilliance of this long opening scene is the outstanding pacing, the sublime direction, and terrific performances, all crafting a monumentally effective sequence that stands as one of the best in cinema, a carefully created setup that deliberately stages a three-act narrative to begin a larger story. With barely a word spoken, we get a main character, a conflict, and an escape, each molding our expectations for what’s to come. It’s a great moment.