Strictly speaking, the zombies in 28 Days Later ... and its equally frightening sequel 28 Weeks Later ... are not zombies. "Zombies" usually designates ambulatory corpses, while the "infected" in the 28 films are living, breathing humans turned into mindless killing machines by a man-made "rage" virus.
That distinction would offer cold comfort if you found yourself chased by a gibbering horde of them. The shuffling, implacable undead of George Romero's films tap our dread of the inevitability of mortality, but 28 Days Later ... made our fears move faster. Director Danny Boyle amped up the "living dead" anxieties by putting the berserk extras and the cameras into spasmodic motion. Even in the light of day, you couldn't get a good look at the infected. The first film evokes, with shocking effectiveness, a terror of pursuit from savage, faceless mobs.
For 28 Weeks Later ..., Boyle cedes the director's chair to Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who helmed intriguing supernatural thriller Intacto. Fresnadillo proves a quick study, mastering that unnerving visual style of grainy film stock and jittery hand-held camera. He turns 28 Weeks Later ... into a sequel that equals the original, and though some heavy-handed politics weigh the film down, Fresnadillo's technique will leave audiences thoroughly shaken.
Within seconds, the prologue draws you into the first film's nightmarish premise. A group of survivors, including Don (Robert Carlyle), ration food and speak softly in a dimly lit safehouse, and you expect the silence to be shattered at any instant.
The story moves forward 28 weeks later to reveal that the catastrophic rage-plague was contained in "mainland Britain" and that the infected starved to death (not a weakness you'd have with real zombies). The U.S. military takes over and begins bringing scientists, soldiers and civilians back into a high-rise, heavily guarded compound on London's Isle of Dogs.
Scarlet (Rose Byrne), a conscientious medical officer, questions the wisdom of bringing young people back to England, but Don welcomes the reunion with his kids, Tammy and Andy, played by the talented young actors Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. (With names like those, could they be any more British?) Tammy and Andy have barely unpacked when they begin breaking the rules in insanely reckless ways, exploring empty streets and abandoned shops strewn with maggoty food.
You can excuse a certain amount of foolhardy behavior in horror movies in the name of "Don't go in there!" thrills. Fresnadillo establishes himself as a new master at spooking audiences, but he also wants to score points off American authority post-9/11. Snipers such as Doyle (Jeremy Renner) guard the civilian residence and peep in windows through the rifle scopes, touching on the debate of safety vs. lost privacy in the homeland-security state.
When the safe zone suffers a breach and all hell breaks loose, the U.S. forces respond in a fashion that's difficult to accept, even if one has a cynical view of military authority in general and recent U.S. actions in particular. 28 Days Later ... also featured a pointed anti-military critique in its last act – the weakest part of that film – and the sequel plays out similar ideas on a massive scale. 28 Weeks Later ... evokes some of the most disturbing real-world images of the past several years: When civilians are hustled into a darkened basement "for their own protection," it's like a Hurricane Katrina flashback.
When 28 Weeks Later ... hews closely to its characters, it proves highly effective. When Don carries a secret of his actions to survive the outbreak, it lends the film some psychological depth, implying that guilt doesn't mollify rage but adds fuel to the fire. Between the film's pessimistic assessment of human nature and the sight of the infected rampaging along high-tech defenses and timeless architecture, 28 Weeks Later ... suggests that history and science cannot match the destructive instincts of the human psyche. Society may not survive to 28 Months Later ....