Zombies weren't as well represented in the classic horror cinema of the twentieth-century as their higher profile monster kin such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, among others. Prior to 1968, there were only a handful of zombie oriented horror films produced including the Bela Lugosi film, WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Val Lewton's moody and poetic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), the low-budget comedy programmer ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945), exploitation quickie ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957) and Hammer films' PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). Three of those films, WHITE, WALKED and PLAGUE, are actually quite good and well worth seeing. But still, zombies just never had the street cred that other movie monsters did. Zombies were just re-animated corpses who moved kinda slow and obeyed their masters commands. They couldn't run very fast and hey, it's not like they were going to eat you or anything.
All of that changed with George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the first modern horror film to explicitly posit the newly resurrected dead as ghouls and cannibals. These lumbering, shambling, mindless monstrosities did indeed want to eat you. This new iteration of zombie monsters was a game changer for the sub-genre. Almost every zombie oriented horror film or television series in the last forty years has featured fast moving, strong and hungry-for-human flesh hordes of the living dead.
Cast in point, Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and it's 2007 sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER. I recently had the opportunity to watch both of these films, albeit in reverse order, but they are both interesting, well made films that are worth seeing if you're a horror film fan in general and a zombie junkie in particular.
That said, I would make the case that the flesh-eating human monsters depicted in both of these films are not, in the technical, strictest sense of the word, actually zombies per se. They're not dead people brought back to life. They're merely infected with a not-quite-specified but extremely fast acting virus which turns them into rage filled, gut-munchers in less than a minute. They're still a threat but they're zombies for the 21st century in which fears of a terror attack using weaponized biological agents is a very real possibility to say nothing of worldwide epidemics of contagious, infectious diseases.
28 DAYS opens with some scientists experimenting on apes with the virus. Animal rights activists invade the laboratory to free the animals and unknowingly unleash the "Rage" virus into the world at large. Specifically, the United Kingdom, where the action resumes 28 days later with a young man, Jim (Cilian Murphy), awakening in a London hospital to find he's the only person left alive in the city. He wanders about London in scenes that recall John Wyndham's science fiction novel, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951), and two of the three film adaptations of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I AM LEGEND: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) and OMEGA MAN (1971). and pre-figure Will Smith's I AM LEGEND (2007).
Of course, he's not entirely alone. Jim is saved by a couple of survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). But Mark is soon killed by the zombies and Jim and Selena eventually take refuge with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The four of them pick up a radio signal from a military base outside of the city and decide to make the journey in the hopes of finding safety and sanctuary. The military outpost, commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), is welcoming at first but the real agenda of the soldiers is soon revealed.
28 DAYS LATER ends on a note of hope but not before putting the characters and the audience through the wringer. This is a grim, grisly horror film, an almost unrelentingly downbeat and depressing story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The effects and make-up are first rate and totally convincing, the action scenes taut and suspenseful and the performances are solid across the board.
The film did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER, in 2007. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the film takes place after the infection has been largely contained within the United Kingdom, thanks to the efforts of a NATO peacekeeping force. A small area of London has been opened for re-population by returning refugees. The zone is heavily militarized and is supposed to be air-tight and totally secure.
Of course, something goes wrong. There's another outbreak of the virus which leads to a complete disaster as both infected and non-infected citizens are gunned down by the military. Two kids, brother and sister Tammy and Andy, are naturally immune to the virus and it's up to U.S. Army Sgt. Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne), to get the kids out of the city safely and escort them to France where an antidote can possibly be concocted from their blood.
WEEKS is more of an action horror film than DAYS. There's plenty of automatic weapons' fire and if you've ever wanted to see a military helicopter use its' rotor blades to mow down a horde of advancing zombies, this is the movie for you. Well made, exciting and suspenseful, 28 WEEKS LATER is a fine continuation of the story that began in 28 DAYS LATER. If you're a horror film fan, check 'em out. They're definitely worth seeing.