Some people just want to watch the world burn; the rest of us want to watch movies about the world burning. Our love for the horror genre reflects our obsession with our own demise, and not because we have a death wish – but rather because it offers an opportunity for triumph. The obsession with an impending zombie-pocalypse usually comes ripe with romantic notions of survival; but in reality, how far would you go to survive?
28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later try to take this question to heart, pushing the terror of a zombie-esque outbreak further than classics like Night of the Living/Dawn of the Dead. Not only are there stronger, faster, more vicious undead to contend with, but these contemporary movies also demonstrate the darker horrors of human survivalism.
It takes a little more to survive the “zombies” in these films. In both the 28/Later movies, a sinister ‘rage virus’ infects the undead and pairs super human strength with an insatiable lust for flesh. Born from a lab monkey that escapes, the first movie sets up a virus outbreak that has supposedly reached France and New York. Interestingly, the second film repeals this and limits the outbreak to Great Britain (or at least, Europe) almost as if to reel back the extent of the disaster, and ensure that there would be something left of the world after 28 weeks. These zombies are just that terrible.
Each of these films also shows starkly different ‘horrors’, thanks to their timing. 28 days after the outbreak, all communications, all power and most people in Britain are dead. Effectively cut off from the world, this dead zone initially allows the hero Jim to wander around, initially unaware of the danger. He and his friends enjoy decent mobility given the lack of authorities, and are free (for the most part) to pursue their own goals for survival. This ‘romantic’ apocalypse gives the heroes some control over their own survival.
However after 28 weeks, the US army has swept in to take command of the situation. Although both films present the same zombie disaster, it’s clear that there is no freedom after 28 weeks. At the mercy of the military safe zones, 15,000 citizens have been moved back in to a zombie-clear Britain but are essentially helpless as individuals. Hardly romantic, their survival is threatened by both the sinister potential of this control as well as the zombies themselves.
28 Days Later attempts to peer in to dark glimpses of survival, but romanticizes the situation. The necessity of killing to survive or to be kind is easily morally justifiable. Even vigilanteism and dominance over the weak, especially women, seems somewhat logical (if not defensible) in the name of survival. In the end, because this movie lets love and the will triumph over these darker elements, the first film really does a poor job of realizing the true horrific potential of this disaster.
28 Weeks Later does a much better job of bringing doom. Though missing the stylistic camera work and shocking zombie attacks of the first film, the second movie does a phenomenal job of raising the stakes. Framed around a man who abandoned his wife to the zombies during an attack only to learn she survived, his guilt winds up causing the demise of the 15,000 corralled civilians living under military law.
The movie is seeped in tension as the safety of the military zone is eroded away, first by a zombie infiltration, and then by the military’s own decision to fire bomb the entire area to prevent the outbreak from spreading. Further to this sinister measure, the zombie attacks themselves do a better job of showing the rage state of mind. As the rage virus takes hold of the protagonist, he rips out his wife’s throat with his teeth, pounds her face viciously with his hands, and drives his thumbs down in to her eye sockets – all while she is strapped helplessly to a gurney.
The fist-driven beatings that seem eerily conscious and therefore incredibly sinister. The graphic eye gouging is also a nice touch, and overall there is little question that 28 Weeks Later leaves a much more vicious impression. This does’t necessarily make it scarier, but the sense of primal rage evolves from animalistic hunger in the first film, to full blown sadistic evil in the second.
If only there was a smoother transition… the end of 28 Days Later drew tons of criticism when first released, as it presents a hopeful future with a needlessly sappy, happily ever after storyline. This is never picked up or mentioned again in the second film, which makes essentially no effort to tie back to the first other than the most basic plot elements.
I’m not entirely sure that it’s fair to compare the two films. 28 Days Later was directed by legendary Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire) while 28 Weeks Later features a comparably unknown Juan Carlos Fresnadillo – a Spanish director, who is often accused of ‘Americanizing’ the franchise. They do consistently question the decisions made during a disaster and morality in moments of survival; and explore the terror of having to answer for such decisions.
This, when considered alongside the violent realism and graphic camera effects, cements both 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later as classic examples of contemporary horror and our obsession with survivalism.