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Anarchy in the U.K.

So I’m still catching up on movie reviews of flicks I saw a few weeks ago, and, while I don’t really care about letting Pirates 3 languish without comment for a fortnight, I do wish I’d written something faster about Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s surprisingly excellent 28 Weeks Later. I thought Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was a so-so enterprise, a very chilling and effective first forty-five minutes undone by the poor decision-making and Col. Kurtzian tangents which comprise the second and third acts. But this outing holds together much better, I thought, and remains intelligent and fearless from frightening beginning to inexorable end. As my brother aptly noted, this installment is the Aliens of the franchise — everything’s been taken up a notch, and the military training of some of our heroes and heroines this time around is, as per Cameron’s flick, only intermittently useful. And, if you like your zombie films awash with social commentary, as they’ve tended to be from Night of the Living Dead to They Live to even Shaun of the Dead, there’s plenty of grist for the mill here, no matter what your political persuasion. If it’s still playing in your neighborhood, run to catch it if you can…just watch out for the fellow sitting next to you.

If you didn’t catch 28 Days Later, no worries: The eerie prologue of this film, which takes place back in the early days of the “Rage Virus” outbreak, will give you the basic gist. We begin with a couple (Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting, Catherine McCormack of Braveheart) holed up in an English cottage somewhere in the countryside, counting their canned goods and waiting, with a handful of other survivors, for the storm to pass. But, pass it doesn’t, and soon enough the virus, which turns one almost instantly from well-meaning human to ferocious, bloodthirsty monster (Think the Black Smurfs. Gnap!), is extant in the cottage, and tough split-second decisions must be made. Flash-forward to 28 weeks later, as this couple’s two children (Mackintosh Muggleton, Imogen Poots) — thankfully at summer camp in Spain during the outbreak — are returned to the “Green Zone” of a nearly-empty London. England’s capital, as it turns out, is now being run and reconstructed by the United States Military, under the auspices of a no-nonsense Gen. Stone (Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell. No Slim Charles around, tho’, which is too bad for everyone else.) Life proceeds somewhat normally in the Emerald City, thanks to the watchful eyes of army snipers such as the Cpl. Hicks-ish Doyle (Jeremy Renner of Dahmer) and savvy military doctors such as Scarlett (Rose Byrne of Troy.) But, partly due to an ill-advised expedition by the children to their old home — you just knew somebody was going to do something stupid — the Rage Virus breaks loose in London again, and the American military presence finds that really drastic actions may be necessary to win the worldwide war on zombies…

Reconstruction, an American occupation gone horribly wrong, Green Zones irrevocably infected by viral terror from the surrounding areas…I don’t really need to draw a map, do I? Still, one of the strengths of Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, like BSG and the best in sci-fi social commentary, is that it doesn’t really align to any easy 1-1 reading of current events. When the US army stops distinguishing between zombie and civilian and shoots at will, or firebombs the city in an attempt to stem the outbreak (not a huge spoiler — it’s a major selling point in the trailer), it’s hard not to grimace ruefully and think of other occupations-gone-bad in our recent history. Yet, things aren’t so simple here: One of the things I admired most about this very dark film is its sheer remorselessness. From its opening moments and throughout, it instills a visceral fight-or-flight dread in the audience and refuses to let us off the hook, inviting us less to tsk-tsk about the hubris of American military overreaching and more to ponder what measures — moral, immoral, amoral — we might take to ensure our own survival in this nightmarish universe. Time and time again in 28 Weeks Later, compassion is absolutely the wrong answer to the problem at hand, and — though there’s less of this as the characters crystallize into horror-movie stereotypes over the course of the film — people surprise you with the decisions they choose to make with their backs to the wall. Maybe the scariest thing about Fresnadillo’s film — and the zombies are at times pretty damn scary — is its dark take on human nature, and what it ultimately suggests about the usefulness of good intentions under extreme pressure. To wit, they’re not very useful at all — if anything, they’re the road to Hell on Earth. So before you offer that helping hand, the relentlessly grim 28 Weeks Later suggests, buy some good running shoes.

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