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28 Weeks Later is about how we live with war crimes

By Dany Roth
28 weeks later

In the 2004 Edgar Wright zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead there's a throwaway line during a news broadcast that states, "Claims that the virus was caused by rage-infected monkeys have now been dismissed as bull-" before the title character clicks away.

Merely two years after 28 Days Later resurrected zombie movies, its rage non-zombies were already becoming a bit of a joke. Which left a heavy question hanging in the air: Is it worth it to make a sequel to Danny Boyle's landmark, genre-redefining film? We got our answer three years after Shaun of the Dead in the form of 28 Weeks Later.

The answer was yes.

28 Weeks Later is, in many ways, an inversion of 28 Days Later. Days ended on our gangly, unlikely hero, played by Cillian Murphy, somehow coming through and helping save the day. Weeks, conversely, begins on a similar character type, played by Robert Carlyle, opening the film by not just failing to save the day, but allowing his wife and a small child to be devoured by a zombie horde as he retreats. What's more, Carlyle, despite opening the movie, isn't even our lead. In fact, 28 Weeks Later goes through potential protagonists like water before it reaches its conclusion.

One of the most notable things about 28 Days Later is that it is not very kind in its assessment of the military and the kind of behavior it can breed. Within a very short period of time, the soldiers we meet in 28 Days Later become deeply unethical, dehumanizing rapists. Maybe the biggest change with 28 Weeks Later was how altogether more nuanced its assessment of the military is and how that extends to everyday civilians as well.

A lot changed in our real-life world between 2002 and 2007. Then president of the United States, George W. Bush, pulled both the U.S. and the U.K. into what Bush would infamously call "a different type of war." By 2007, in some ways, right-wing leadership in both nations, despite criticism both nationally and internationally, felt they could say they had won that different kind of war to some extent. Notably, Iraqi leader and war criminal Saddam Hussein was assassinated by U.S. forces on December 30, 2006.

Even for those of us who see Bush himself as a war criminal, 2007 was a time when both a prolonged military presence and a newfound absence of privacy had been somewhat normalized. 28 Weeks Later is, in many ways, a response to this. And the response is not as simple as "military bad."

The plot of 28 Weeks Later is basically: A group of people return to post-zombie-apocalypse London, there are still zombies, and now the remaining citizens have to flee as the military decides to kill everyone, infected and non-infected alike.

When the order to kill everyone is given, it's clear that this is horrific and that this is wrong. But, also, there's a genuine sense that there isn't really a better option. A more humane option? Sure. But that comes with the serious risk that the zombie outbreak will begin anew and that this time there will be no stopping it.

There are soldiers within the military force who actively work against the order to kill everyone. Scientists, snipers, and pilots all work together to save a small group of survivors. But a part of why these soldiers choose to go against their orders is that, among the survivors, there is a child whose blood may hold the cure to the rage virus. So the narrative is not as simple as "the military killing innocent civilians is wrong." The narrative is more "protecting this specific group of people is worth the risk."

28 Weeks Later is less an allegory about what to do in a post-9/11 world and more a narrative crisis of conscience; it's a movie that asks us to look at our reactions to 9/11 and say, "How do we live with the choices we made?"

On today's episode of Every Day Horror's 13 Days of Halloween podcast, movie critic Bob Chipman and music critic Todd Nathanson join the show to talk about 28 Weeks Later, our post-9/11 guilt, and the incredible visuals that stuck with us over a decade later.

On the next episode of the 13 Days of Halloween, Radio Dead Air co-hosts Nash Bozard and Tara Deenihan talk about the Larry Cohen schlock classic The Stuff.