The whole “28 Days Later” phenom gets a classy makeover — and the birth of a potentially endless franchise — in “28 Weeks Later,” a full-bore zombie romp that more than delivers the genre goods. Helmed by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who debuted with the impressive 2001 fantasy thriller “Intacto,” the pic wraps a tight-as-a-drum script around a cheeky metaphor for contempo Iraq, with razzle-dazzle dividends. Given the muscular playoff, starting May 11 worldwide, this bleak, tough chiller could easily match the 2002 original’s surprising $82 million worldwide gross if it can survive the challenge of getting caught in Spidey’s slipstream.
Where the Danny Boyle-helmed, Alex Garland-scripted original had the feel of a genre movie progressively trapped by its non-genre ambitions, “Weeks” knows exactly where it’s going from itsknockout first reel. It’s to the credit of Boyle and Garland (serving here as exec producers) that they’ve let Fresnadillo and his team of Spanish writers, along with Brit scribe Rowan Joffe, off the sequel leash and allowed them to go for it. Joffe, son of helmer Roland, has already scored a local rep with scripts for Pawel Pawlikowski’s gritty immigrant drama “Last Resort” and cheeky no-budget docudrama “Gas Attack.”
With no reference to the original or its characters, “28 Weeks Later” starts in medias res as a couple, Don Harris (Robert Carlyle) and Karen (Emily Beecham), scavenge inside a gloomy house for food. We hear their kids were luckily sent abroad just before the virus outbreak. Then, in a surprise encounter typical of the movie’s low-key humor, they come across the house’s owners and another refugee, Jacob (Shahid Ahmed).
Shadowy, claustrophobic start is abruptly shattered — in an explosion of daylight, noise and gnashing teeth — as a pack of zombies break in and start to chow down. In a mixture of confusion and cowardice, Don escapes, leaving Alice, in a creepy final image, for zombie dinner.
Socko opening is followed by captions filling in the background: 15 days after the original outbreak, mainland Britain was quarantined; 28 days later, the population was destroyed by the rage virus. Eleven weeks later, a U.S.-led NATO force entered London; 18 weeks later, Britain was declared “free” of infection. Twenty-four weeks later, “reconstruction” began. Enter main title, “28 Weeks Later.”
In fact, the only infection-free area of the country is a heavily fortified area in east London’s Docklands quarter, now dubbed District 1 Security Zone. As some new arrivals disembark at City Airport and are processed by Yank troops (“The U.S. Army is responsible for your safety”), it doesn’t take a political science degree to realize we’re not light years away from Baghdad, ca. 2007, with rampaging zombies standing in for Muslim terrorists.
Among the new arrivals are Don’s children, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), who are welcomed by dad. In an emotionally powerful sequence where Fresnadillo lets the camera just focus on his actors, Don gives his version of what happened to mom, conveniently leaving out the fact that he left her to die.
Script then starts to twist the knife on Don’s guilt as Andy and Tammy clandestinely cross the river to visit their home, where, to their great surprise, they find mom hiding upstairs. She’s “infected” but isn’t showing any outward signs of zombie rage, causing U.S. doctor Scarlet (Aussie thesp Rose Byrne) to surmise her blood has a natural immunity that could be used to generate a vaccine.
However, the military brass trust more in firepower than scientific theory. When all hell breaks loose in District 1, Scarlet and the kids, along with a sympathetic Marine, Sgt. Doyle (Jeremy Renner), flee for their lives across London, pursued by hungry zombies on one side and U.S. troops on the other.
In pic’s second half, Fresnadillo pretty much keeps the pedal to the metal, with some deftly drawn scenes of deserted, garbage-strewn London streets and a succession of set pieces — aircraft firebombing District 1, a zombie attack in Regent’s Park, and a clammy descent into the subway network — that pile on the thrills. Auds familiar with London’s topography will get an extra charge from these scenes, as well as the ironic climax in an overgrown Wembley Stadium.
Once the action begins, there’s no time wasted on explanations or motivation, which is just as well for thinly drawn characters like Doyle. But pic is well served by its cast, with Byrne (good in Boyle’s recent “Sunshine”) making the most of small character moments, and Muggleton and Poots delivering sterling perfs as the conflicted but sensible kids. As the weak father, Carlyle clearly has a ball in the later stages after showing his more regular acting smarts earlier on.
Production design makes inventive use of existing locations, and visual effects are just fine, with a unfussy snap and crackle. High-gore quotient makes this not for fainthearted auds, though there’s a straight-faced humor to all the bloodletting that finally breaks the surface in the pic’s witty coda.