Tuesday, 16 November 2010

28 Weeks Later (2007)

Starring: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner
Music: John Murphy
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Screenplay: Rowan Joffe, J.C. Fresnadillo, E.L. Lavigne, Jésus Olmo
Director of Photography: Enrique Chediak

By its fast pace and (for a modern movie) short running time, the film avoids the usual horror-movie structural clichés of exposition and false shocks followed by quiet moments and real shocks; or rather, it amps and speeds them up so that they regain their full, adrenaline-pumping combined impact. Deployment of the over-used False Shock technique tends to be minimised in favour of real threat, apart from one early, self-conscious parody of the device, which nonetheless manages to provoke a jump: shadows fall across the face of a soldier who’s fallen asleep in his helicopter on sentry duty, and he’s awakened with a jump as something jumps up beside him with hideous growlings, poised to rip out his throat…Turns out that it’s his fellow soldier, come to relieve him and to take the next watch, and he relaxes into banter and camaraderie – only for the same trick to be repeated, moments later. In a sense, it’s a false false shock – the character in the film pokes fun at the device not once, but twice, satirising both the initial shock (the one which is ‘really nothing’) and the ‘real’ one which succeeds it (the actual threat, for which one has been caught off-guard by one’s relief after the false alarm). At the same time, this comic sequence does not dispel the notion that false shocks bring with them – the dread of deferred brutality to come. When it does come, that brutality, that outpouring of blood and guts and action, can come as something of a relief in itself – at last! now we get to the meat of the film – but here, it’s sickening and frightening rather than exhilarating. ‘28 Weeks Later’ specialises in real violence (rather than withholding it through suspense sequences) – panic, panting, sweat, sprinting – a sensory overload that, crucially, is bolstered by an underlying and more lingering sense of dread and terror in details, in ideas as much as in outright gore. Apart from the aforementioned ‘false shock’ send up, there is little in the way of humour here; the aim is to present a realistic contemporary context (modern day London) and a set of people (rather than characters with lengthily developed back-stories and relations), who find themselves in situations where they face impossible choices and where life is so fragile that it does not even bend to the rules of movie narrative (one feels that anyone could die at any point, that the film will not respect story arcs, will not respect the need to keep certain characters alive longer than others, the need for a ‘star’ to guide one through the carnage). To say, as some critics have, that the lack of ‘character development’ renders the film’s protagonists ‘faceless’, and that we consequently don’t care about their fate, is to ignore the film’s sense of in-the-moment terror, that basic human instinct. It also skates over the way that this amped-up, scarifying sensibility is mixed with snatches of bleak, quasi-sociopolitical allusion (not so much commentary as atmosphere, echo – visually reminiscent of ‘Children of Men’ in its contemporary-dystopian concentration on the consequences of catastrophe in recognisable British locations, both city and countryside, though without that film’s more drawn-out and thought-through critique). Thus, we might consider the truly unnerving scene where a crowd of frightened, fleeing civilians are trapped in a darkened, windowless, underground-car-park-type space – locked in by the US military after a fresh outbreak of the ‘Rage’ virus, which it had been thought was fully contained – and set on by the new carrier of that virus. Here we have the visceral suggestion of anxieties about detention centres, asylum seekers, the treatment of displaced victims of political conflict, without engaging in overly schematic or obvious allegorical parallels; the scene is as much about the absolute primal terror of being trapped, not only in a crowded place, carried along by the mass with little control of one’s own desired, individual direction, but also in the dark, with monsters leaping out at one from the shadows – or worse, maiming, damaging, killing one before they can be seen.

Since ‘Night of the Living Dead’, zombie films often seem to revolve around such use of confined, forbidding spaces, though here the tension is in wanting to escape from that space, rather than trying to keep the threat out (see also the French film La Horde). The climactic (though not final) sequence of ‘28 Weeks Later’ also takes place in a dark, confined space – this time, an abandoned tube station, were the film’s surviving protagonists (two siblings and a female US army officer who has been attempting to protect them) are menaced by the children’s infected father. Here, we have the suggestion of a near-Freudian take on the family unit, with the father’s abandonment of his wife in the opening sequence (he jumps out of a window and flees across a field, leaving his wife trapped in a house with hordes of zombies) and the sense of an older generation’s guilt; the virus break loose through his kiss with his newly rescued wife (who, it turns out, survived the attack due to a genetic immunity, but still acts as a carrier through her saliva), followed by a savage, cannibalistic destruction/rape. In the tube sequence, then, the wheel comes full circle, as the daughter ends up shooting her father while he menaces his young son in similar fashion. This doesn’t quite fit a psychoanalytic scheme (really, it should be the son, rather than the daughter, who does the killing); instead, it is a queasy and hysterical derangement of familial ties that fits well with the film’s numerous other set-pieces and situations, in which the comfort of established personal and social ties is torn to shreds in much the same way that ‘the infected’ rip out the throats of victims with their teeth. Here, one thinks too of the US military who try and fail to contain the fresh outbreak, having successfully defused the first through establishing martial law in Britain. Though the choices they face lead them to impossible decisions (this is not simple ‘anti-Americanism’), the scenes in which orders to fire at specific targets (anyone who shows signs of infection) change to orders to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd are particularly hard to watch, as soldiers mow down hordes of civilians; the computer-game body-count of indiscriminate, mindless violence translated back into horrifying reality. (And, one might note, so effective for a white, western audience due to the way in which the victims are white and western too; for, as we – yes, even we ‘liberal’ white westerners know, those two attributes endow a person with a humanity that ‘ragheads’ or Africans or anyone who does not have the right skin colour or cultural background do not possess.) The influence of computer-games/movies on the ‘generation kill’ mindset thus slimes its way into proceedings, but the film’s true appeal (if that is the right word) is the way it avoids hammering home the obvious, the obviously symbolic; specific situational details cannot help but evoke wider social, political, theoretical concerns, but these remain in the background as a kind of aura, or haunting, that unsettles much more than if it had been stated explicitly.

What ‘28 Weeks Later’ presents best of all is a growing sense of things slipping out of control, both for the individual people caught up in the chaos, and in terms of the general situation: for instance, the film’s final shot has a crowd of ‘the infected’ racing across to the Eiffel Tower like deranged tourists, silhouetted against a picture-perfect Paris sunset. (If it weren’t for the way this final twist adds a kind of final, nihilistic sucker-punch to all the film’s previous deaths and disasters, this might qualify as a moment of near-comedy.) There is no standard ‘loss of innocence’ – in contrast to ‘Children of Men’, the kids here, possible biological saviours from the virus, are not treated as Christ-like embodiments of hope, but as vulnerable and scared people; even if they survive, they are just as likely to fall victim to a panicky US army who would rather slaughter them to avoid the virus spreading, than try to work with their genetic condition in order to find a cure. (There are, of course, echoes in this scenario of the conflicts between the military and scientists in George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’.) The solidarity of the family or group has little chance to flourish in such situations, moments of conscience and morally-motivated action becoming seemingly impossible in the panic-stricken battle for survival. Robert Humanick, writing at the 'Projection Booth' blog, mentions “the film's ruthless morality plays; what remains to define love when even giving your life amounts to an act of futility?” Truth be told, however, there’s little time for much exposition of such a theme – death and mayhem are always just over the horizon, just over the grassy rise in that idyllic English park, just round the corner of that high rise flat or down the end of that dark alley. And, even if the question were to be asked more explicitly, it’s unlikely that the filmmakers would come up with much hope in their answer – or give an answer at all. Romero’s desert island paradise coda to the savage conflicts of ‘Day of the Dead’ may be partly parodic (and illusory – compare it to the nightmare which opens the film, and one senses that it could be just another dream, a fantasy of escape from which one will fall back into the waking nightmare of what is actually happening (as in the ending of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’)), but it does at least offer us some ray of hope, of light, however tentative. Here, there’s no respite, only fresh horror; after the two children have been airlifted to safety in the helicopter of an army officer, we flash-forward some months to a shot of the helicopter, abandoned, a desperate voice begging for help over the helicopter’s radio headset going unanswered, the zombies having crossed the channel from Britain’s isolated island and onto the European mainland.

That’s the horror of the general situation, but ‘28 Weeks Later’ works on more than just (high-)conceptual grounds. One feels, rather, that horror has penetrated into the very fabric of the film, infecting it as the virus infects humans. On the level of sound, it penetrates the musical score, dominated by the crashing strains of John Murphy’s In the House, In a Heartbeat’. This cue, used only at the climax of '28 Days Later', recurs through the sequel like a leitmotif, underscoring many of the action sequences, with no peaceful or romantic counter-theme to offer contrast or hope – just the electric chug of ominous, unstoppable chord progressions and sudden, dread-filled silence. On the level of sight also, we find yet more horror; indeed, Sight is an important thread throughout the film – as in the aforementioned scene where a crowd are trapped underground, unable to see in the dark (though, here, the horror movie contrast between ‘dark night of the soul’ and the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (the dawn after the vampires or werewolves or zombies have been vanquished and there is safety in the sunlight) does not exist – there is as much danger in the daytime as the night). Indeed, in the film’s opening sequence, that trajectory is reversed, so that danger is actually signalled by the move from darkness (a house boarded-up as protection against the infected hordes) into bright sunlight (the surrounding fields into which a character flees after the infected break in) that signals danger.) Most notably, though, sight becomes apparent in the focus on Eyes. The first we see of a virus-carrier in that opening scene is their bloodshot stare through a gap in the window-boarding; in the father’s murder of his wife, possibly the film’s most gory sequence, thumbs are pressed into eye-sockets with much spurting of blood and screaming. (Indeed, the role of the Eye in horror films is something which could well form a topic for future examination in itself – think ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’, or the camera/eye in ‘Peeping Tom’, or the notorious eye-slicing scene in Fulci’s ‘Zombi’.) In the case of ‘28 Days Later’, it is with the treatment of eyes that the film’s near-nihilism once more rears its head. Though eyes have been supposed by some to be ‘the mirrors of the soul’, here, one cannot trust what one sees; the connection between appearance and what we might call soul, or empathy, or emotion – any of those intangibles usually signalled by facial expression or tone of voice or by raising or lowering or widening the eyes – is gone. Though the infected still retain their human, bodily frame, this becomes, as in the zombie films, little more than a walking corpse (even if, here, the infected are not actually ‘undead’, but live carriers of a terrible disease); and it is in the eyes that the first signs of infection appear, with the development of a blood clot that soon swells to fill the whole eye, an eye which becomes totally bloodshot, monochromatic, an unreadable void, gazing out but offering nothing in return, the human as sheer violence, sheer brutality, as the animal in the midst of the hunt: transformed, unreadable, savage, Other. We might recall how, in ‘Day of the Dead’, the scientists discover that the zombies do not actually need to eat to survive – they exist on pure extinct. The terrifying thing about them is that their action is unmotivated (and here it might have been a mistake to turn the infected father into something of a main antagonist, akin to the disappointing slide towards conventional bogey-man scare tactics in the otherwise marvellous ‘Sunshine’; in both cases, what is suggested is some sort of motivation or planning on the part of a previously instinctive or inhuman force). Of course, this lack of motivation, and the tendency of zombies (or, as they’re called here, ‘the infected’) to move in crowds, enables them to ‘stand in’ for something else, to fit into whatever allegorical and metaphorical framework the film-makers wish to load their film with; but, whereas the parallels between shopping-mall consumers and zombies in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ allowed Romero to indulge in the near-cartoonish destruction of faceless hordes for purposes of comic relief, here, in one particularly harrowing scene, the consequences of such full-scale massacre are moved back into the human realm, back into the realm of – perhaps – ethics.

‘28 Weeks Later’ is very much a big-budget, ‘A-List’ picture (though it does borrow some of the grimy, shadowy, hand-held and shaky griminess of its predecessor). Thus, we have swooping helicopter shots of shiny London skyscrapers, big explosions, multiple-zombie-massacre-by-helicopter-blades, and the booming sound of John Murphy’s climactic cue for ’28 Days Later’ used several times throughout the film during big action scenes. (Thankfully, we don’t have A-list actors, and one of the film’s virtues is that it doesn’t feel the need to preserve any of its characters for the sake of an obvious narrative arc or the presence of a recognisable face. As Robert Ring notes in his review: “I have seen few films so true to the [situation] that it progresses with total disregard for its characters. This is a good thing. No one is kept alive just because the plot needs them or because the story has invested too much in them. It's as if the writers aren't even sure themselves if the film is going to make it to a satisfactory end. Of course, this is how a horror film should be. It creates a world where anything truly can happen to anyone at anytime, and survival is not at all guaranteed.”) One might argue that the film’s texture is often not slick enough for ‘A-List’ status – and here we come to a realization of what has happened to ‘mainstream’ pictures in recent years: they have drawn on and cannibalized the techniques of exploitation films, of low budgets, of the ‘grindhouse’ aesthetic, and used them as an element of surface sheen (or its opposite, of apparent rust and grime) in a self-consciously manipulative way. Think ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (which would be treated with as much scorn as ‘Hostel’ were it not for the religious ‘justification’ offered by its scant narrative); think the near avant-garde metallic clunk, the techno assault of ‘Terminator: Salvation’ or ‘Transformers’; think Tarantino’s ‘movie-geek’ aesthetic. Perhaps the most obvious signal of this shift – whereby one can no longer separate the ‘big’ films from their seedy and sordid low-budget cousins (giallo, Euro-shlock, spaghetti western, etc) – was ‘The Bourne Supremacy’, which drew the techniques of ‘guerrilla’ film-making (primarily, the use of the hand-held camera to place the viewer physically ‘in’ the scene) into the mainstream action film, initiating them as just another part of mainstream cinema’s loud, metallic, crunching assault on the senses. True, ‘Blair Witch’ might have had something to do with it, though there at least, the aesthetic was preserved as an integral part of the film, almost its raison d’etre. But Paul Greengrass’ selective jigging of the camera in what was hardly an ‘underground’ movie (in contrast to his more persuasive neo-realist use of the technique in the TV movie ‘Bloody Sunday’) arguably neutralises the effectiveness to which the technique can be put in the future, for the sake of a few ‘punchy’ fight scenes.

Horror films are one of the main battlegrounds here, with the idolisation of 70s cinemas as a kind of benchmark, the rise of Hollywood remakes of cult classics (‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Last House on the Left’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’) in a manner that doesn’t attempt to sanitise or tone down the gore (indeed, revels in it), the rise of films and film-makers whose entire aesthetic seems to derive from Tobe Hooper et al. (For a negative take on said movement, see this article at Reverse Shot.) This is, one might argue, a kind of zombie-like, parasitical feeding on the dead, the past, a weird kind of retro-nostalgia, not for the wholesome days of Clear-Cut Morality, Cowboys and Indians, Black Hats and White Hats, and a belief in Progress and the Future, but for moral uncertainty, grunginess, unspeakable violence and taboo-breaking, rape, murder, mutilation, torture, unhappy endings, nihilism, and belief that Progress and the Future are illusions and lies used to justify and excuse hideous violence, a belief that we’re fucked because we (or they – those in authority, the bigots, the hypocrites, the moral high-grounders) have fucked everything up. “No future for you/ no future for me.” If, as is argued in the persuasive and thoroughly watchable documentary ‘The American Nightmare’, a whole species of horror films arose as a reaction to the loss of 60s hippy ‘innocence’ and the failure of the ’68 generation’s radical hopes as the bad 70s drew in, what is the status of the new breed of horror film that seeks to revive this species? Does it represent a welcome return to seriousness after the meta-fictional, post-modern jokiness of ‘Scream’ et al, a necessary re-assertion of the horror film’s dark heart after a generation of slasher movies and self-conscious parody, or is its supposed ‘bleakness’, ‘braveness’ and ‘uncompromising’ attitude really an excuse for lazy film-making? Is it a genuine attempt to engage with contemporary socio-political realities (or shall we just say, the Iraq war and the Bush regime), using similarly engaged past films as a template and example, or is it merely empty generic posturing, using the political resonances of, say, Romero and Cronenberg to score cheap credibility points, and, essentially, to cover up the core trashiness and nasty exploitation which is its real obsession? Perhaps this is such a key issue because horror has always been a somewhat uncomfortable presence in the world of film, despite being one of its staples across countries and cultures. It’s a genre which retains certain associations with a kind of filthiness and nastiness, a near-pornographic exploitation streak, not only occupying moral grey areas but taking pleasure in doing so; a genre where some of the classics are, essentially, B-movies that form a kind of apotheosis of a crude and shlocky form: ‘Psycho’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’. (Which is perhaps why those the two most famous mainstream horror films of the 70s, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen’, used a religious framework as a kind of safety net for their set-pieces of blasphemy, sexual transgression, the disruption of the safe family situation by evil children run amok.) Herschell Gordon Lewis, Lucio Fulci, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, and now, Eli Roth, Alejandro Aja, Greg McLean, Rob Zombie: these are the true ‘auteurs’ of the horror world. Even if film noirs and westerns, beloved of the French New Wave and their quasi-academic ‘legitimisation’ of genre cinema, were just as opportunistic and ‘tacky’ as horrors, there’s still a certain griminess that just can’t be shaken from the horror pic, as it can with noirs (now viewed as nostalgic evocations of a certain stylised period, time and place) and westerns (which, if they are made at all nowadays, can engage with issues of history, myth and nation-building as much as with purely generic signifiers).

‘28 Weeks Later’, then, is surprising in that it manages to remain an ‘A-Picture’, despite drawing on the B-picture, exploitation lineage of gore movies (dating back to ‘2000 Maniacs!’) and that more general horror-film-feeling of moral and emotional bleakness, resulting from irreversible, or near-irreversible, societal breakdown. I’m not sure that I’d quite call this dishonest – though I do, as I’ve been arguing in the previous paragraphs, harbour certain suspicions about the mainstream embrace of shlock-techniques. Does the fact that a film like this can be received with little fuss or moral panic serve to neuter its impact? In the end, the answer must be no, because ‘28 Weeks Later’, despite its gory nature, aligns itself as much with the non-horror (though certainly horrific) dystopia of ‘Children of Men’ as with the ‘torture porn’ of ‘Hostel’ or ‘Wolf Creek’. What emerges from the film’s potent mix of a furiously-paced, balls-to-the-wall action/suspense/gore quotient (panic and terror) with a more creeping, invidious, nightmarish sense of horror is a truly grim and despairing contemporary take on a well-worn genre, one which avoids the pitfalls of much recent ’70s nihilist-chic for something more truly and lastingly unsettling.

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