By Andrew Tracy
28 Weeks Later
Dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, UK, 20th Century Fox
The predictable irony of the horror revivalist bandwagon is that the oft-mentioned imperative to “get back to basics”—which typically means evoking some fantasized notion of “the Seventies”—belies the fact that this new breed of would-be fearmongers are actually doing something quite new and complex. Not complex in their thinking or execution, of course, but in their opportunistic appropriations of a certain climate wherein their cynical retreads can obtain some kind of “authenticity.” The Eli Roths, Marcus Nispels, and Alexandre Ajas don’t even have the courage (or the wit) to argue for the merits of their bad taste; indeed, what they’ve done is make their cultivation of that taste inarguable. It’s genetic fallacy all the way down the line: horror films are “supposed” to be grungy, violent, dark, and gruesome; the films of the new breed, whatever else they are, are indeed grungy, violent, dark, and gruesome; ipso facto, the generic virtues of their films are self-evident, as if the mere act of “putting it out there” were enough.
Sadly, this seems to be the case. Much as Rodriguez’s (awful) half of Grindhouse won some kudos from the undiscriminating for simply serving up the ingredients of the genre in generous helpings, so some of the trailer-making co-conspirators from that abortion have cornered the market in their generic ghetto. What’s novel about this new breed of horror films is not the extremity of the images—there are any number of older films more revolting, or genuinely transgressive, than the new Chainsaws, Hills, et al—but the self-righteousness with which they rub the audience’s faces in unpleasantness. “In your films people eat defecation, in mine the audience is simply exposed to it,” Herschell Gordon Lewis once said to John Waters. If this complacent passivity on Lewis’s part is at least somewhat mitigated by his genial hucksterism, the new breed exposes the audience to their waste with all the hard sell, ad agency hype of any other studio product. Just as both studio-generated and journalistically offered marketing relentlessly reminds us that every new blockbuster, whether enjoyable or not, is undeniably “entertaining,” so the new horror product, like it or not, is undeniably “horrifying,” irrespective of the skill or wit of its execution(s).
While there is a certain distance between the obnoxious self-promotion of a Roth and the “classy” team behind 28 Weeks Later—producers Danny Boyle and Beach scribe Alex Garland, along with Intacto director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo—this supposedly slicker, more sophisticated effort has benefited from the same climate that bestowed legitimacy upon the films of the former. Much early praise has been showered upon this sequel to 28 Days Later for its “relentlessness,” “bleakness,” “darkness,” “ferocity,” et cetera and ad nauseam. That these are merely descriptions rather than values in and of themselves does not seem to register. 28 Weeks Later is indeed all these things, and worthless besides. Though perhaps Boyle, Fresnadillo, and company have done us a service. By stripping away, or at least dialing down, the overt obnoxiousness, needless provocations and stupidities of the rest of the contemporary pack (though plenty of all remain), they’ve revealed the utterly bankrupt core of the genre’s “new wave”—promising the forbidden while courting the mainstream acceptance that has retrospectively fallen upon their models.
While thus proudly displaying typical Romero-lite political “commentary”—a U.S.-established Green Zone in plague-stricken London, and an inability to distinguish between civilians and targets when the zombie-shit hits the fan—the real timeliness of 28 Weeks Later is the way in which it irresponsibly piggybacks on truly disturbing real-world events to add a pseudo-intellectual sheen to its shallow, repetitive scenes of carnage. If Cuarón’s Children of Men needed any further vindication, Fresnadillo’s clunking mechanism provides it by contrast. Cuarón not only creates some truly gut-twisting tension, he does it within his larger project of finding imaginative, unconventional and effective ways to compose and stage his largely familiar material—not only in the one-take setpieces but in the dialogue and expository scenes as well. It’s this consistent aesthetic imagination that legitimizes the film’s pointedly political echoes, even if those echoes never find explicit voice. Fresnadillo’s brand of “slickness,” meanwhile, is familiar from such transnational compatriots as Mathieu Kassovitz, Christophe Gans, Guillermo del Toro, and Nimrod Antal: a few shadows and some dimly lit, largely incoherent action and behold, an auteur is born. Nothing in 28 Weeks Later speaks of any skill beyond the purely functional: the infected hordes bust in, the camera shakes, the frames stutter, a few isolated shots of something particularly nasty (eyes being gouged out by thumbs the big winner here), leaving the viewer with only the sensation of having witnessed something vaguely unpleasant while en route to the next, identical setup. The film is grinding and wearying rather than shocking, a steel brush slowly scraping away at the nerve endings for 100 minutes before depositing the unlucky viewer—in an offensively clichéd conclusion—right back where they began.
To state the simple fact that 28 Weeks Later is relentlessly unpleasant and unrewarding to watch is, however, to fall into the filmmakers’ semantic trap. The non-event that was Roger Ebert’s clash with the makers of the (by all reports horrendously brutal) slasher flick Chaos was nevertheless instructive as to the rules of the new game. “How else should filmmakers address this ‘ugly, nihilistic and cruel’ reality, other than with scenes that are ‘ugly, nihilistic and cruel’?" director David DeFalco inquired of Ebert after the latter had pointedly asked, at the end of his zero-star review, “Why do we need this s—t?” DeFalco highlights the 1:1 ratio of ugly world/ugly cinema that is the motivating and justifying force of these films, whether they be openly provocative or, as per the Boyle team’s outings, “stylish” and “slick.” The world certainly is ugly, in addition to being a number of other things—and to simply “reflect” that ugliness, or any of its other aspects, is to absolve oneself of responsibility after making the very calculated choice to focus on it.
The smugness that emanates from these films is only fitting considering that they’ve appointed themselves de facto textbooks of twisted civic duty, of moral instruction in the “realities” of an ugly world. Watching these films, it is implied, is good for you, the “bleaker” and “darker” the better. It’s the kind of mindset that leads reviewers to praise children being hung and limbs being hacked off in kiddie studio fare like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 for being “uncompromising” (uncompromising of what?). Ugliness, pointless and unrevealing ugliness, is the coin of this new realm, and like currency, it simply circulates around and around on its mercenary way. The unnerving and terrifying cinematic power of the original Chainsaws and Living Deads transcended their generic packaging and filtered into the world at large; their inheritors package an unnerving and terrifying world and serve it back in consumable portions. 28 Weeks Later and its ilk do not make one reflect on the ugliness of the world, but on the needless ugliness of the far narrower film world. To look away from this garbage is not to refuse to face reality, but to look towards more rewarding films.