Critics have been quick to spoil the beginning of 28 Weeks Later (20th Century Fox), the sequel to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, but not its ending, which is too bad, because the beginning is where all the good stuff is and the ending is nothing you haven't seen before. So, allow me to do the opposite: At the end of the movie the people you expect to live, live and the people you expect to die, die. But the first hour of this lean, mean, 95-minute scream machine is so tasty that it redeems the predictable conclusion.
The theater goes dark, the 20th Century Fox logo disappears, and suddenly we're watching handyman Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife, Alice (Catherine McCormack), sitting in a cozy English country cottage, windows boarded up, pasta bubbling away on the stove, and zombies infected with a rage virus roaming outside. This little band of human survivors is just snuggling in for what looks like a delicious supper when their world is shattered by a knock on the door. And then, with disturbing speed, this movie sweeps all your expectations off the table and leaves them in the corner, moaning softly and splattered in blood.
Back in 2002, director Danny Boyle, writer Alex Garland, and actors Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris shot 28 Days Later, the story of a shockingly contagious rage virus that turned the population of Merrie Olde England into champion sprinters with red eyes and a desire to bash the brains out of anyone who didn't have red eyes. It became a surprise hit around the world. A sequel was greenlit, and most of the cast and crew declined to sign on, which is usually a bad sign. Not so in this case. Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo was hired on, and he follows the successful example of the Alien franchise, creating a worthy sequel by mixing in the military with his monsters.
In 28 Weeks Later, the millions of Brits infected by the rage virus have starved to death. An American-led U.N. force has set up a heavily fortified Green Zone in the heart of London and is slowly but surely decontaminating and repopulating England. Don and Alice's kids, Tammy and Andy, are the first children to be repatriated, and the audience instantly perks up: We know future zombie chow when we see it. The surveillance-suffocated, locked-down Green Zone simmers with tension as we wait for army efficiency to erupt into bloody chaos, and we're teased to just within the limits of our patience before receiving a massive dose of shock, awe, and destructo-porn.
Fresnadillo is never better than when he's willing to casually brush good taste aside and really dig his thumbs into someone's eyes, but the violence in 28 Weeks Later is upsetting not because it's so gory but because it's so personal. An outbreak of rage in a crowded shelter, a sniper ambush, a full-tilt chase through a field, and a night-vision sequence lash out at the audience so aggressively that even the most determined heckler will be reduced to stunned silence by the raw fury unleashed on-screen.
The rage virus, with its ability to create red-eyed, screaming monsters, with its instantaneous transmission via liquid, and the fact that its frantic growth can only be stopped by firebombing, is an effective metaphor for the unstoppable, global spread of Starbucks. Zombie movies need their sociopolitical subtext as much as they need their gore. But 9/11 imagery in movies hasn't been a real source of frisson for anyone except film critics since Steven Spielberg unleashed his glossy, mainstream-ready version of it in 2005's War of the Worlds. Images of rabid globalization, however, still deliver a kick, and there's nothing that says "New World Order" more than a horde of single-minded zombies devouring the quick and assimilating them into their anonymous, ever-expanding ranks. Unfortunately, globalization—the triumph of the blandly international over the quirkily regional—is also what keeps this movie from pop greatness.
The original 28 Days Later was produced in the United Kingdom by locals for whom London wasn't a vacation destination, it was a dirty, familiar city. 28 Weeks Later is a multinational production with a Spanish director and British, American, and Australian actors. For them, London seems to be little more than a series of photogenic landmarks. Characters race across Tower Bridge, past the Swiss Reinsurance building, beneath St. Paul's dome, and then receive urgent instructions: "Rendezvous in Regents Park!" But don't forget to stop off at the Tower of London and see the crown jewels first!
Danny Boyle is an auteur with specific concerns, and for him it was a point of pride to give 28 Days Later a happy ending that didn't feel like a cop-out. For all its pleasures, Fresnadillo's follow-up feels like it was designed by a computer, with its characters dying in a predetermined order and an off-the-rack, nihilistic ending airlifted in from L.A. But there is a real fear of endless consumption and endless expansion at the heart of this flick. In the last shot, we get an idea of what the probable sequel will be called: 28 Countries in 28 Months, a round-the-world zombie tour kicking off at that most snapshot-ready of all European locations, the Eiffel Tower, and not stopping until the entire planet has been gobbled up, from the Roman Coliseum to the Great Wall of China. This is a franchise that won't be happy until of all its consumers have become the consumed.