Like other great cities, London has exercised such a strong presence in movies over the years as to be considered not just a setting but a character itself.
There was the stiff-upper-lip London of the blitz and World War II. The swinging London of Blow-Up and other trendy '60s films. The punk/multi-culti London that dominated in the late '70s and '80s. The neo-romantic, newly prosperous London of '90s hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.
The current decade, though, has seen a striking reversal in the city's fortunes. Today London, alone among major metropolises, is synonymous with the acridly insinuating adjective "post-apocalyptic." From a gauzy love nest fit for the likes of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, the stately capital has morphed into a nightmare burg crawling with the sickest, most revolting of creatures. And I don't mean stockbrokers.
Whether or not they constitute a movement, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta and Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men are notably similar in conjuring a Britain that seems to have made a stomach-churning somersault beyond the horrors imagined for it by George Orwell in 1984 (one of the obvious ancestors of this new breed of creepfest).
Of these films, the arty, digitally shot, extremely successful 28 Days Later offered the most original and haunting images of a stricken London. Indeed, when I think back on the film, its story seems a jittery blur, but those images remain engraved on my brain. In Boyle's vision, the city has been emptied by a terrible plague that turns people into zombies, and thanks to the wizardry of aerial photography, we skim over its vast expanses and famous landmarks and behold not a single living soul.
How did they do this? Was it an elaborately orchestrated shoot on a Sunday morning with the police cooperating on a vast scale to keep cars and pedestrians entirely out of central London? Or were manifold erasures courtesy of digital airbrushing also necessary?
To me, the techniques are finally inconsequential compared to the result: indelibly eerie proof that even the most beautiful and storied of cities is nothing but a yawning necropolis if swept clean of its people. Though not a big fan of 28 Days Later, I will hand it to Boyle—the talented stylist of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting—that his film deserves a place in the history books for that chilling vision alone.
It was no doubt inevitable that this creepy image would return, given that hugely profitable horror films, like the monsters they contain, tend to spawn ghastly offspring. What hasn't returned, in the new 28 Weeks Later, is the team of Boyle and Alex Garland as director and screenwriter. Instead, the two Brits serve as executive producers for their hit's sequel, while turning the creative reins over to a Spanish team led by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) and producer-writer Enrique Lopez-Lavigne.
Curiously or not, the word "zombie" appears nowhere in the new film's lengthy press notes. But 28 Weeks Later, like its gory predecessor, is nothing more nor less than a zombie movie. Why not cop to that fact? Perhaps because this is, in effect, a genre item with airs—a zombie movie for the art house, not the grindhouse.
Readers may recall that half of the last movie I reviewed in these pages, Grindhouse, was a zombie movie too. This can't help but affect my reception of 28 Weeks Later. I like zombie movies well enough, in occasional helpings. One or two a year is plenty. Two in the same month—when the body counts from Iraq and Virginia Tech don't exactly cry out for fictional accompaniment—is, well, overkill.
Fans of the genre may well feel otherwise, of course, and there's no denying that Fresnadillo and his amigos bring a lot of skill and enthusiasm to their continuation of Boyle's shocker. When their tale commences, Britain remains almost entirely depopulated, but an American-led NATO force has control of the once-sceptred, now zombie-decimated isle and is allowing small numbers of the uninfected living to return, while keeping a close eye out for the contagion that turns nice, polite Brits into raging body-snackers.
The story centers on Don (Robert Carlyle), one of the lucky few who, as the film's prologue shows us, managed to survive the recent zombie scourge. Don's kids, teenager Tammy (Imogen Poots) and 12-year-old Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), were vacationing in Spain at the time, and so are able to participate in the NATO repatriation program. When they rejoin Dad, however, they're curious to learn more about the grisly fate of their mom (Catherine McCormack). Did she really die the horrible, zombie-inflicted death that Don claims he witnessed?
Soon after their return, Tammy and Andy break out of the compound where returnees are quarantined and set off across empty, blighted London, first on foot and then on a motorbike that they discover at a pizza-delivery shop. As they whiz through the city, searching for their old home and evidence of mom while Fresnadillo's cameras observe them from high overhead, 28 Weeks Later offers an unostentatious recapitulation of its predecessor's most haunting moments—and the images of those vacant, abandoned streets and houses remain as subliminally powerful as before.
But zombie movies aren't about contemplative observation; they're about frantic, heart-pumping chases—the dead chasing the living—and 28 Weeks Later quickly turns to fulfilling its genre obligations. Naturally, the contagion rebounds, and soon enough Tammy, Andy and a few other hapless returnees are tearing around the city threatened not only by ravening zombies but also by the American occupiers, who would rather decimate the Brits with sniper fire and firebombs than sort the living from the undead.
All of this is suitably frenetic, and sometimes viscerally scary, but it's achieved in a way that I find inherently dubious. Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, the zombie portion of Grindhouse, may cheerfully ape the cheesiness of '70s horror movies, but its brilliantly honed visual dynamics exhibit a classical cinematic intelligence. 28 Weeks Later, by contrast, reflects the flashy temptations of digital editing and sound effects and a stylistic sense derived from the tropes of top-dollar TV commercials.
Which means that when a scary scene arrives, what we see isn't a coherent series of actions played out across a clearly articulated visual field. Rather, everything is disjunctive, discrete, spasmodic; a series of shock cuts assembled in the editing room and orchestrated with overbearing noises and trendy music on the soundtrack. Though the photography's fashionably dark and super-saturated, the film has precious little in the way of an overall vision; it's all aimed at momentary jolts and frissons.
In a sense, that's not too surprising coming from a director brought in from another country as a hired gun. Along with fellow Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) and Mexicans Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), Fresnadillo is now part of that curious recent phenomena of Hispanic filmmakers leaping borders to make arty movies that play globally. Is their success owed to their cinematic cosmopolitanism, or precisely to their lack of cultural specificity?
Back around the time of Night of the Living Dead, when horror movies began to enjoy a certain vogue, much was made of their metaphorical relevance, how they reflected various social issues and tensions. These neo-zombie films, however, seem to signify little beyond themselves, and leave us wondering why they've found such a congenial home in Britain.
Is it because the Brits are now so prosperous and contented that they enjoy getting a chill out of imagining themselves destroyed? Or do the films reflect a society that's outwardly well-off but inwardly sick and soul-dead? You can take your pick. 28 Weeks Later is one of those films that's more than happy to let you have it both ways, or no way, as long as you pay for your ticket.
28 Weeks Later opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner is one of those French movies that makes you wonder why anyone still imports them. That's not to say it's bad, just that it's so slight and old-hat that it's hard to imagine anyone beyond a few diehard Francophiles being interested.
The premise: Years after she traumatically fails a piano examination when one of her inspectors interrupts her concentration by signing an autograph, meek Ariane (Catherine Frot) gets a job in the country household of a famous pianist, who soon enough takes her on as her page turner during concerts. Yes, you can see the dramatic crux coming here from a mile off, and its name indeed is "revenge."
If you need a term for this kind of civilized malice, call it "Chabrol Lite." For more than four decades Claude Chabrol has specialized in mounting similar stories of bourgeois propriety and self-satisfaction being traduced and outraged. Dercourt's version lacks the gleeful nastiness of many Chabrol films, and instead tries for a meticulous restraint that's either exacting or enervating, depending on your point of view.
On its own terms, there's nothing at all wrong with The Page Turner. It could have been made 30 years ago by another "school of Chabrol" director and be exactly as it is. That's enough to tell most viewers whether or not it's worth their time.
The Page Turner opens Friday in select theaters.