The View From Here

Why can't a horror film just be a horror film..?

Michael Bonner

I've always been resistant to the notion that horror movies can in some way function as biting social comment.

There are horror buffs who, perhaps sensing that the genre lacks much in the way of serious critical acclaim, are prepared to make over-reaching claims in its defence.

Last year's Hostel, for instance, found a trio of boorish American backpackers kidnapped by foxy Eastern European babes and tortured by rich and bored businessmen from around the globe. To some it was a gruesome but rather puerile gore flick -- to others (notably, if memory serves, the film's director Eli Roth and his playmate Quentin Tarantino), it was a searing indictment of American foreign policy with particular reference to the shocking treatment meted out to detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison facility. Um.

The most famous horror movies that have been hailed as masterpieces of social comment are George Romero's zombie films. In Night Of The Living Dead, for example, the fact that both black and white survivors are beseiged in a remote farmhouse by hoardes of zombies is held up as peerless comment on Civil Rights issues in Sixties' America. Dawn Of The Dead, which takes place largely in an abandoned shopping mall, offers profound insight into Reagan-era capitalism. The bickering in Day Of The Dead between scientists and the military in a bunker hidey-hole is emblematic of the Cold War's dance towards apocalypse. I was somewhat disappointed, then, to watch Land Of The Dead and find it wasn't, as I'd hoped, a Descartian study of human duality as we head into the 21st century.

This morning on Radio 4's Today programme, the actor Robert Carlyle was interviewed about his new film, 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the Brit horror flick, 28 Days Later. Carlyle, an intelligent and thoughtful interviewee, claimed you could find in 28 Weeks Later reflections on America's misguided adventures in Iraq.

Hang on.

The premise for 28 Weeks Later is that an American led UN force are helping repatriate Britain after the initial outbreak of the Rage virus has apparently subsided. Even someone with a minor grasp of international politics would fail to find much similarity between this plot set-up and the ill-advised and messy goings-on in Iraq. I certainly don't recall seeing many zombies lurching round the streets of Bazra on the 10 O'Clock News. Carlyle went on to talk about war, suicide bombings and invasions, suggesting that the logical conclusion to all this horror and bloodshed is that we end up eating each other.

Maybe if Ken Loach had directed 28 Weeks Later things would have turned out differently, but it seems fairly disingenuous to imbue a horror film -- even one as good as 28 Weeks Later -- with any kind socio-political consciousness.

28 Weeks Later is a slick, exciting chase movie. We pick up seven months on from the events in the first film. London is derelict. The American military are helping bring survivors back into the city; snipers posted on rooftops, helicopters filling the sky, many itchy fingers on triggers in case, somehow, the Rage virus returns.

The mechanic for the virus' resurgence is a Typhoid Mary figure, a carrier who seems initially immune to the virus. Inevitably, things go very bad very fast, and soon the films leads -- a brother and sister, played by newcomers Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, plus a handful of American soldiers -- are being pursued through London by thousands of the Infected.

The producer (and the first film's director) Danny Boyle says he equates the relationship between 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later to that of Alien and Aliens. In the first film you didn't really know what was going to happen next. This time out, with the element of surprise removed, everything is bigger, louder, faster. There's guns -- loads of 'em -- napalm, chemical weapons, and the nuclear option hovers menacingly in the background. In the first film, Cillian Murphy recalled the speed at which the virus had spread through Victoria Station. Images of a near deserted London, festering bodies piled high in mounds, eerily recall Samuel Pepys' diary descriptions of the plague-hit capital in 1665. Here, the budget is significantly larger that you actually see something similar happen -- and in the tight, claustrophobic spaces of the tube, too. It's icky.

Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo -- whose previous film was a fantastic Spanish thriller, Intacto -- keeps the film haring along at a fair old pace after a relatively quiet start. To some degree, this doesn't really allow much characterisation to develop, particularly among the military characters, but Poots and Muggleton (and, to some extent Carlyle, as their father) make the most of their roles.

Fresnadillo sets up for some incredibly effective scenes -- helicopter flights over the abandoned City of London, shots of refugee camps, flight through the underground, a final stand-off in Wembley Stadium. But to say this is anything other than a particularly good horror film is as deceitful as claiming Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction buried out there in the desert. Ah.

28 Weeks Later opens in the UK this Friday


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