Retrospective

15 years ago, 28 Weeks Later improved on Danny Boyle's zombie cult classic

This bombastic sequel is less popular than its predecessor, but it deserves re-evaluation on its own merits.

28 Days Later redefined the zombie genre and helped launch the careers of both Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. Its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, features a scene in which a helicopter blade turns a horde of the undead into a bloody pulp. Which movie is better? If you think it’s the original, you're in the majority. You're also dead wrong.

Boyle’s film introduced the Rage Virus, a deadly pathogen that accidentally escapes a lab to rapidly infect the population. It swapped out the tired tropes of dull, shuffling zombies for adrenalized pack hunters that act with lightning-quick movements and cunning intelligence. Eight years before The Walking Dead showcased its hordes of cannibal corpses, it was a wakeup call to the zombie subgenre.

28 Weeks Later was not only a worthy successor to 28 Days Later, but in some ways surpasses the original film with its slick editing, nightmarish set pieces, an elevation of its driving electronic score, and a shocking level of gore that set a high bar for future zombie flicks. While Boyle achieved gritty punk sensibilities by shooting in a harsh documentary style, Weeks is all Hollywood bombast, with a body count to match.

Budgeted at a relatively small $15 million, 28 Weeks Later arrived on May 11, 2007, five years after Boyle’s post-apocalyptic offering. It managed to collect $64 million, an impressive tally for an indie sequel. Fresnadillo took a crack at the screenplay, collaborating with Enrique López-Lavigne and Jesús Olmo, with input from 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland. None of the original cast would return, and the broader scope of the sequel would see Robert Carlyle, Imogen Poots, Jeremy Renner, and Idris Elba as the more notable names attached.

A pre-Hawkeye Renner makes for one of the film’s more notable stars. 20th Century Fox

The plot picks up six months after the original zombie epidemic swept through the British Isles, wiping out the majority of the population. NATO declares the Rage Virus eliminated. Citizens are allowed back into a protected safe zone for reconstruction, order is finally restored, and life slowly returns to normal. But as refugees filter back onto the island, one survivor is carrying a mutated form of the disease that’s even more deadly.

Where 28 Days Later revels in its stark intimacy and cinema-verité heritage, 28 Weeks Later opens the canvas of this nationwide calamity and delivers a visceral gut-punch of orchestrated action sequences. It’s a juggernaut of elegant horror, from the unforgettable opening of a quiet dinner interrupted by a ravenous zombie swarm to the shock and awe of London being bombed and the intimate nastiness of Robert Carlyle’s character feasting on his wife.

It’s a bloodier and often grimmer ride than 28 Days Later, one that not only expands on the first film’s themes but also manages to stand on its own merits as an effective sci-fi thriller dosed with heart-wrenching drama and buckets of blood. Witnessing an army chopper mowing down charging zombies with its rotor blades will remind you why this film is so revered by splatter aficionados, and let’s not forget the stumbling trek through corpse-strewn subway tunnels captured by a night-vision scope.

Get used to seeing helicopters. 20th Century Fox

Its deft camera work comes courtesy of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, who gives the project a ground-zero ferocity akin to a war correspondent’s first-hand account of an especially vicious pandemic. It may lack the indie vibe of its predecessor, but it still feels like you’re right there with the action.

And Fresnadillo, who only had one feature under his belt, capably approached the task of pushing the envelope with professional flair and an ever-thickening atmosphere of lurking dread. There’s also political commentary that adds context to society’s fracturing and the distortion of our core values, although American soldiers running London as a clunky Iraq War analogue has aged less well.

Will there ever be a third installment of the franchise? The zombie craze may have played itself out with The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, World War Z, and even the Netflix zombie heist movie Army of the Dead, but these things cycle in and out of popularity. 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland has recently said he has a "bigger idea" for a third film he's considered during conversations with Danny Boyle, but nothing concrete has emerged. (Garland also took the opportunity to settle the debate over whether his infected are “zombies” or not. They are.)

Whatever comes next, 28 Weeks Later was an evolutionary step for horror films, confidently building on the foundation of Boyle’s masterpiece to create something frighteningly fresh. By targeting the aftermath of the infection and its widespread chaos, the sequel offers hope married to the looming reality of another wave. It’s a visceral heart-pounder and a topical reminder of viral danger.

28 Weeks Later is streaming on HBO Max.

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