The War on Horror

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Atomic

How uplifting to see that zombie movies like the new 28 Weeks Later—the incendiary follow-up to 28 Days Later—can be both juicy splatterfests and vehicles for stinging political commentary: It validates my faith in the disreputable. Even film snobs have accepted that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a spookhouse mirror of social and familial upheaval in the late sixties; and that Bob Clark’s Dead of Night—about the corpse of a Vietnam soldier who returns home to his grief-stricken parents—is at least as evocative as David Rabe’s fine, much-heralded play Sticks and Bones. In 2005, Joe Dante and Sam Hamm collaborated on a film for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series called Homecoming: a bloody madcap satire in which dead vets burst out of their flag-draped coffins (hidden from the public by the Bushies) to cast votes against the Iraq war. Horror films aren’t bound by the wussy tenets of realism or journalistic faux-objectivity. And as for the charge that they are grossly, cynically exploitive: No zombie movie worth its salt isn’t.

28 Weeks Later, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto), is blistering and nihilistic—a vision to reduce you to a puddle of despair. The prologue plays like the film’s predecessor distilled into a few ferocious minutes: dark, boarded-up farmhouse of survivors; malignant daylight as zombies break through doors and windows; and the rocking, pixelated frenzy of snarls and blazing eyes and showers of blood. These are not Romero’s loping dead, who now seem rather quaint. Their swiftness forces split-second decisions—in this case one in which a weak patriarch, Don (Robert Carlyle), abandons to the monstrous hordes his wife (Catherine McCormack) and a boy she’s shielding, setting a new record for the 600-yard dash in the direction of the river.

Twenty-eight weeks later, the zombie cannibals have exhausted their food supply and died of starvation, Britain is virtually depopulated, and Don resides in a high-rise city-within-a-city—a London “green zone” guarded by the U.S. Army. Life is by no means normal, but the outbreak is contained, and British refugees are starting to trickle back into the country, among them Carlyle’s kids (played by Mackintosh Muggleton—a great Harry Potterish name—and Imogen Poots—another great Harry Potterish name). The brother and sister take their father’s weaselly lies about their mother’s death badly, and—being idiot young people in a horror movie—slip out into the city to inspect their old home.

What happens next is the worst that can happen. This is literally a take-no-prisoners movie, insofar as once the zombie-cannibal contagion menaces the populace again, there’s no time to distinguish among the uninfected and the feral. When the shit hits the helicopter blades, American higher-ups tell their soldiers they “cannot be target-specific.” And so we watch these men—as crazy-scared as everyone else—let loose with bullets and firebombs and chemical weapons. By no means is everyone a zombie or a zombielike combatant. The young’uns end up in a new surrogate family, led by a farsighted military doctor (Rose Byrne) and a Special Forces sniper (Jeremy Renner) unable to pull the trigger on innocents. But unlike the benevolent universe of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, this one offers little hope for survival. Parents go in an instant from protecting their children to trying to munch on them, and no government rescue is forthcoming.

Is the movie a classic? I don’t think so, but it’s terrifying—and a necessary gross-out. Fresnadillo and co-screenwriters Rowan Joffe, E.L. Lavigne, and Jesús Olmo certainly rub our noses in the gory mess of reconstruction under a desperate occupying force: With his whiplash subjective camera, Fresnadillo rouses our fight-or-flight instincts and makes us loathe the brutality. All I could think was, What has our government wrought? Although I suspect that he, along with most of this country and the world, could not be more sickened by the mayhem in Iraq, one could take a pro-surge view and argue that 28 Weeks Later makes the best logistical case for inflicting massive amounts of collateral damage. Zombie cannibalism, Islamofascism—both highly contagious. Alas, the Bush-Cheney administration has proved more adept at spreading the virus than inoculating against it.

If you’re not familiar with the traditions of clowning and the commedia dell’arte, you might peg the highly stylized, rambunctiously funny Belgian clown odyssey L’Iceberg as avant-garde. On the contrary, it is derrière-garde, like a kick in the derrière. It is to die and go to heaven—or at least the North Pole—for. That’s where its heroine, Fiona (Fiona Gordon), treks after she’s accidentally locked overnight in a walk-in freezer in her fast-food restaurant and emerges with a creeping aversion to her suburban rinky-tink house and suburban-zombie spouse, Julien (Dominique Abel). Drawn back—as if by cosmic force—to the freezer in which her emotional compass was upended, Fiona has a mystical vision of a twin-peaked iceberg. And so begins her journey north, in a refrigerator truck, then a busload of oldsters, and finally the lobster boat of a hangdog, deaf-mute sailor, René (Philippe Martz)—an unstable but very sweet lug who becomes the vessel for Fiona’s romantic obsessions.

The three directors—Abel, Gordon, and Bruno Romy—are prodigious performers, and the movie they’ve cooked up plays like a circusy hallucination on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House addled with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I could throw in Laurel and Hardy and Jacques Tati, but the movie forges its own unique language. L’Iceberg is a procession of tableaux vivants: little proscenium stages, sometimes with rear-projected exteriors, on which enchanting slapstick routines erupt. There’s a giddy interplay of light and color and flabbergasting shapes, like the ovoid mouth of Abel as he yawns—the Munchian scream of yawns. I defy you not to gasp at Gordon’s wordless ballet under a white sheet, legs and limbs shooting every which way until the very image of the iceberg rises up from her bed. Not every sight gag works, and there’s a brief stretch in the middle where the action becomes landlocked. But once we’re out to sea the movie goes swimmingly—its three protagonists fighting, flailing, and often on the verge of drowning as their tiny skiff surges toward the land of the Inuit.

A skinny, freckled redhead, Fiona Gordon looks a little like Carol Burnett stretched out, and she has a similar dedication to her character’s lapses in sanity. Watch her ecstatic frug on the mud flats at low tide and marvel at those long, loose limbs, at the most lyrical spasticity in modern movies.

There is a hole at the center of Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night, a film that unfolds in what might be the final hours in the life of a young woman (Luisa Williams) as she prepares to blow herself—and a lot of people in Times Square—up. It’s the big “W”: “Why on earth did she decide to do this?” Not an easy question to dispense with, but it’s not as if Loktev forgot about it (click here to see Logan Hill’s story on the director). The film is, in fact, a cunning exercise in subjectivity and withheld information—and once you accept those parameters, it’s riveting.

The young woman (identified in the credits as “She”) arrives from across the country and is driven to a motel by the only conspirator (Tschi Hun Kim) whose face she and we see. It reveals nothing. Left in her darkened room, she bathes, brushes her teeth, and sits impassively. One by one, three hooded men arrive. The Commander (Josh P. Weinstein) drills her—in gentle, measured tones—on what she is to do, and on her cover identity if she’s apprehended. There is not a lot of talk. Her handlers give her a statement to read—posing with a rifle—on videotape, but Loktev cuts away (sly!) before she begins. Absent much discussion, Day Night Day Night is pure sensation.

Williams has an interesting, unusual face—the face of someone who keeps secrets from herself. The camera fastens on her as she walks around—and around—Times Square, intermittently stopping to buy junk food, which she eats with great intensity. She stands amid crowds on the edge of crosswalks—her features frozen and eyes bulging, as if she has been bitten by a poisonous snake. I’m frankly flummoxed about what Day Night Day Night adds up to, but its “You Are There” allure is potent.

The heroine of L’Iceberg spends the night in a walk-in freezer and lives to see the morning. Impossible? Well, severe hypothermia doesn’t set in until the body’s core temperature falls to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and she does take some protective measures. And arguably, stranger things have happened to people—and animals—trapped in cold places. An Oklahoma City cat survived being stuck in a refrigerator for a month without food or water after a 4-year-old forgot he put it there for safekeeping, and a 19-year-old in Ontario reportedly endured severe hypothermia for over thirteen hours before he was found in a frozen creek. Two days later, he was back on his feet again.

28 Weeks Later
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Fox atomic. R.

Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy. First Run Features. NR.

Day Night Day Night
Directed by Julia Loktev. IFC Films. NR.


The War on Horror