The entire population of London was wiped out by the "Rage" virus in "28 Days Later," Danny Boyle's stylishly resonant zombie freak out, but in the slick and frenetically intense "28 Weeks Later," the city is starting to come back. We learn in a series of titles that 11 weeks later, a U.S.-led NATO force entered the city, and that 18 weeks later London was declared virus free. Now reconstruction has begun, and a new imported civilian population is ensconced in a heavily fortified enclave in East London patrolled by jittery and increasingly trigger-happy Yank troops. It's referred to as the Green Zone. Hmmm. Do you smell a political metaphor here?
The director's reins have been turned over to the flashy young Spaniard Juan Carlos Fresnadillo ("Intacto"), who may have Iraq in the back of his mind but is primarily interested in scaring the beejesus out of the audience. He's abandoned the grungy video look of the original for Enrique Chediak's gorgeous, more expensive-looking cinematography, and whenever there's a zombie attack (there are many) the editing goes into the cinematic equivalent of an epileptic fit, the soundtrack delivers a heavy-metal assault on the eardrums and the blood flows copiously. It's effective, to be sure, but he "cheats" the action shamelessly. You're never really sure what exactly is happening—the savagery is conveyed with MTV-style impressionism that works over your nervous system but often leaves you confused as to how the characters make their hairbreadth escapes from near death.
The characters are not carry-overs from the original. The sequel focuses on the remains of a family that is reunited in the London security zone. Dad (Robert Carlyle) has fled a vicious zombie attack in the countryside in the movie's prologue, in which he guiltily abandoned his wife (Emily Beecham) to her grisly fate. But he bends the truth when he tells his young son and daughter (the talented 12-year-old Mackintosh Muggleton and 17-year-old Imogen Poots) that he saw her die, a fib that will come back to haunt him when the kids, sneaking out of the Green Zone to revisit their old London flat, discover mom miraculously still alive. She turns out to be the rare human who carries the virus without succumbing to it, and she's passed on this genetic trait to her children—thus making them valuable specimens whom the sympathetic military doctor Scarlet (Rose Byrne) wants to protect. They may hold the key to finding a cure. Viewers of Richard Rodriguez's zombie parody in "Grindhouse" will recognize the familiar genre trope. (All zombie movies really boil down to the same story, don't they?) And fans of "Children of Men" may feel déjà vu as the plot revolves around getting these kids, who may represent humanity's hope of a future, to a safe haven.
What the children are up against isn't just the zombies—who soon include their own bloodthirsty father (poetic justice) who pops up with logic-and-geography-defying regularity everywhere they turn—but the U.S. soldiers, who have been ordered to shoot everything that moves, zombie or otherwise. There is, of course, one good American soldier (Jeremy Renner) who joins Scarlet in trying to safeguard the kids. (You wouldn't want to completely alienate the lucrative U.S. market.)
The Iraq metaphor that Fresnadillo and his screenwriters (Rowan Joffe, E. L. Lavigne, Jesus Olmo and the director) set up is initially intriguing, but doesn't bear much scrutiny. Indeed, if you try to parse the movie's logic closely (zombies = terrorists) you might come to the conclusion that the U.S. military strategy—kill everybody to stop the contagion—proves to be the correct one, which is not, I think, what the filmmakers intended. The movie's politics thus come off more as fashionable frosting than meaningful metaphor.
Fresnadillo has flair to spare, but he's as willing as any hack director to substitute sensation for sense if it means a good scare. There's a particularly nonsensical sequence where the authorities, trying to stop the invasion of the zombies, order all the lights to be turned out in the security zone, which is about the dumbest thing they could do, but it creates a spooky mood, so why not? These may seem like quibbles, but when a movie has pretensions of "transcending" its genre, it should at least play fair by genre rules. Terrified ticket-buyers, however, may not care. Bottom line, "28 Weeks Later" delivers jolts of fright with alarming regularity. But where the original gave you something to chew on, the sequel is more interested in chewing on you.