It was around the time of 2003's 28 Days Later that zombies moved from their niche to be the dominant go-to movie monster—beating loyal standbys vampires, werewolves, mummies and child-murdering bogeymen. Not just in major films either—zombies stand alongside drug abuse and suicide as popular topics of amateur productions.
One benefit is that zombies aren't as indebted to existing mythology as other monsters. Vampire movies consider Dracula as a benchmark. Werewolfs play by the rules of The Wolf Man. Night of the Living Dead made an early impression, but zombies get a lot of leeway. In George Romero's films they move slowly. In Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later they can run. And zombies can represent a variety of things too.
The new success of walking-dead movies correlates with panic about terrorism. The zombies in 28 Weeks Later are meant to evoke sleeper cells—they look like regular harmless people from a distance. Just as an enough-is-enough dismissal seems appropriate, 28 Weeks Later heightens the intensity. It's more satisfying, scarier, leaner and more exciting than its passable predecessor.
That movie, directed by Danny Boyle in a once-novel digital video documentary style, was best when offering stark images of a depopulated London. The sequel is more focused on being a vicious thriller. It falls prey to the usual pessimism-as-realism crutch (most notable in its silly final 10-second coda), but director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo works in some real ideas along the way.
The US military has attempted to control the zombifying "rage virus" in Britain, where a young boy Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and his older sister Tammy (Imogen Poots) are readmitted to society after their stint in quarantine. Their father Don (Robert Carlyle) is happy to see them, but lets them know that things didn't turn out OK with their mom. The kids investigate for themselves, and hell breaks loose again.
By staging many shots through sniper scopes and security cameras, Fresnadillo expresses a world where human action is under surveillance. Under the government's eye, it's a climate where we're made into zombies. This concept is only taken so far, which means that the movie isn't fated to being smart at the expense of being a horror show. The piercing noise level of the attack scenes is a cheap mode of frightening; Fresnadillo is determined to scare his audience awake.
But it's as 28 Weeks Later turns into an extended foot chase that the vulnerability found in its wide open spaces and deep dark places (an infrared descent into a subway station is especially well-realized) finds its helpless impact. It's also in these specific scare-beats where the shaky-cam faux-documentary style feels like a con. The current verite movement in films is culled from the popularity of shows like Survivor, where it gives an illusion of objective reality. In movies, the technique is taken as a reaction against Hollywood gloss, despite the fact that it is itself an orchestrated effect, and its use results in films that are deliberately ugly, and where image compositions aren't expected to have meaning.
28 Weeks Later is a work of dread and despair, and is successful in that regard. It plays safe by never contemplating the end of the world with genuine sorrow, like the final two tracks on the new Nine Inch Nails release. Fresnadillo's zombies are strictly in it for nihilistic kicks.
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