Monday, November 26, 2012

Finally, a post that actually talks about zombies.

I got to write this for a grade. I've changed some things for the final turn-in copy, obviously. Also, THIS PAPER DISCUSSES THE ENDINGS OF BOTH MOVIES. If you have not seen them, prepare for spoilers. Deal with it and see the movies anyways.

Here goes.

28 Days/Weeks Later:
The 2-Part Formula To Make Effective Zombie Movies 
For People Who Don’t Like Zombie Movies

    Especially considering the fact that it was a zombie movie, which fits it into a specific niche genre that does not traditionally appeal to mainstream audiences, the commercial success of 2002’s 28 Days Later was revolutionary. Even with a limited release, it grossed $45million  in the United States, and $82.7million worldwide. Stylus magazine named it the second best zombie movie of all time, beaten only by the seminal 1976 Romero film, Dawn of the Dead, which essentially created the genre, and gives it an unheard of 88% approval rating.

    28 Days Later was directed by Danny Boyle, known at that time for Trainspotting but since then for winning Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards for his subsequent film, Slumdog Millionaire; neither of those films were specifically genre films the way that 28 Days Later was. The fact that Boyle does not specifically direct ‘zombie horror’ films greatly influenced the way he approached 28 Days Later and his vision enabled the film to explode into mainstream culture. Today, zombies are a huge part of pop culture, and many point to 28 Days Later as the film which started it all.

Given the huge commercial success of the film, it seemed inevitable that the studios would want to make a sequel. The risk of making a sequel to a hit movie is always the risk that the fans of the first one will reject the second one as ‘not as good’ or somehow lacking. Boyle had made a previous commitment to a science fiction movie, 2007’s Sunshine, but he supported the project and was eventually listed as an executive producer. 28 Weeks Later, directed by relative newcomer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, was released in 2007, to mixed but generally positive reviews, and it grossed nearly $64.2million worldwide. It is considered a solid zombie movie, if not quite on par with its progenitor.

When examining the two films, some similarities in both plot and device can be identified. Both can be divided into two distinct parts, which for the purposes of this paper will be labeled as “Aftermath” and “Shit Hits The Fan” or “S.H.T.F.” These two parts have very distinct artistic styles and thus are clearly intentionally split.

Neither film lingers on the event itself, instead using an establishing scene to show what happened. These scenes feature characters and events that occur long before the movies themselves begin, and are like small, rapid, and extremely violent movies in themselves. They end abruptly, with most or all of the characters dead, and lead into a montage of newsreels and images that tell the viewer what essentially happens as the world ends. The movies themselves begin in the Aftermath.

Aftermath is, in both films, characterized by use of crane shots, extreme long shots, and high angle shots over empty city and landscapes in order to establish how quiet it is now that humans are gone. There is very little sound or movement, and the music used is quiet and instrumental.

In 28 Days Later, the main character, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up naked in a dead quiet hospital room. He has no idea what has happened, and that’s a good thing, because really, neither does the audience. Having a character awaken from a coma after the end of an event is a fairly common trope, and it is particularly effective here because Jim, in his innocence, wanders aimlessly through the empty streets of London. He is seen to be the only moving being in the city, and viewers very nearly forget that there are supposed to be zombies. It is peaceful and serene, and Jim seems to follow the soundtrack’s use of Christian hymns directly into a church, where he sees and runs from his first zombies, is saved by the characters who do know what’s going on, and properly enters the story.

28 Weeks Later, after its own establishing scene and montage, focuses on siblings Tammy and Andy as they are admitted to the U.S. Army protected Safe Zone on the Isle of Dogs, among the first Brits readmitted to their now (presumably) infected-free country, having been safely in Spain during the initial outbreak. They watch soldiers cleaning up the city, and are told repeatedly that there is no danger of infection. So when 12-year-old Andy becomes afraid that he will forget what their mother looked like, and begs his older sister to come with him to their home in London proper, she agrees. After a slightly traumatic experience with a truly dead person (not a zombie, just a corpse), Tammy acquires the keys to a moped and the children peacefully traverse the same deserted city Jim did twenty-eight weeks before.

The purpose of Aftermath, as established by Boyle and imitated by Fresnadillo, is to break the viewer away from the notion of the zombie movie. You may have come to the theater for a formulaic zombie horror film, but there are no zombies. This intentional shearing away from the genre both ensnares the viewer and heightens the tension. You are glued to the screen, waiting for the shit to hit the fan.

The second part of the 28 formula, S.H.T.F, is dramatically different. The lighting and camera choices change - the lightning becomes starker, at times nearly black and white, and the camera angles become closer, lower, and tighter. The moments of highest tension make use of ‘naturally’ occurring weird lighting situations. When Jim is forced to storm a military compound in order to rescue his two surviving travelling companions, he does so during a raging thunderstorm, and the lightning flashes, timed with music, rapidly reveal and obscure the action. The most terrifying part of 28 Weeks Later is filmed entirely through the night scope of a rifle, wielded by the ‘Good Doctor’ trope of Scarlet (Rose Byrne), as she and the siblings have been forced to travel through a subway tunnel that completely lacks light. Both devices enable the directors to kick the tension into high gear without making it seem forced or fake.

The second, equally distinct feature of S.H.T.F. is that the enemy is still not the zombies, even though now there are plenty of them. The most dangerous enemies are other humans; even more specifically, the military. Though Jim’s enemies are deranged British SAS soldiers, and Tammy and Andy’s enemies are perfectly sane, if seemingly misguided, American soldiers, both pose a greater and more frightening threat to the innocent civilian heroes.

This two-part formula, as invented by Danny Boyle, fundamentally shifts the focus of the zombie genre away from the zombies themselves, and onto the surviving human race’s reaction to them. Zombies are one dimensional, predictable enemies, the walking dead whose only goal is to destroy the living, but humans operating in a post-apocalyptic world are seen to respond in varying and nuanced ways.

If both films follow this formula so faithfully, then why was 28 Weeks Later not the same outrageous, mainstream success as 28 Days Later?

Fresnadillo made two distinct changes to the formula, and these changes work to alter the effect just enough to disconcert the audience and create a less satisfactory movie. First, and most importantly, the establishing scene is intimately connected with the rest of the plot. Tammy and Andy’s parents feature in it, and it ends with their father (Robert Carlyle) escaping, in order to meet up with them later, still a living human, on the Isle of Dogs. The events which take place in it are vitally important to the main story arc. The establishing scene of 28 Days Later, even though it shows how the entire outbreak started, is not necessary for Jim’s story and all the characters featured in it die immediately.

Much of the dramatic tension of the Aftermath - the question of ‘What’s going on and when is it going to hit the fan?’ - in 28 Weeks Later is mitigated by the fact that the audience at least suspects what’s going to happen. The tipping point has everything to do with the events of the establishing scene, and the fact that the father lied about his role in the supposed death of their mother. When the mother is revealed to be alive, the father scrambles to fix his actions by apologizing to his wife, and thus exposes himself to the virus and makes himself the vehicle of Rage - the 28 universe’s term for zombie infection - for the rest of the movie.

This is the second, critical break in Boyle’s formula. The father, while being a zombie, is a persistent and distinct enemy who follows his children all the way until nearly the end of the movie. While some of the zombies in 28 Days are recognizable and/or previously human characters, they are dealt with immediately and not seen again once the humans move on. Given that the zombies are portrayed as mindless killing machines, devoid of all the characteristics that would make them the person they used to be, the father’s persistence is completely illogical. The children, by the final scene, have travelled several miles and used several forms of transportation that a zombie could not have stumbled blindly behind.

Making a zombie a real villain also distracts from the other, more serious enemies, the soldiers which are still pursuing them under the orders of the Code Red lockdown, which means that there can be no survivors on the chance that one of them might be exposed. This turns out to be an extremely logical order, as the crux of the movie is that Andy and his mother share a genetic trait which makes them asymptomatic but highly infectious carriers of the Rage virus. Andy becomes infected, but as he displays no symptoms, he is taken from the natural quarantine of the island and airlifted to France.

In the end, this sequel is unsatisfactory because the heroes are doing the wrong things. This happens consistently and is infuriating in a way that prevents the audience from fully connecting with the characters. Andy and Tammy make the wrong decision when they sneak out of the Safe Zone to retrieve the picture; their father makes the wrong decision when he uses his janitorial override card to sneak into the medical quarantine to see his wife; Scarlet makes the wrong decision when she chooses not to tell Tammy and Andy that she believes that they could become uninfected carriers. All of these wrong decisions lead to the final moment, when Andy is bitten by his infected father, and since he displays no symptoms, he and Tammy believe he is uninfected and safe. By making a movie where the audience is constantly angry at the main characters, and then showing that in the end, their anger is justified because the infection does spread to mainland Europe and presumably then the entire world, it is impossible to really enjoy the film.

Viewers need closure and Fresnadillo does not give it to them, instead showing an enigmatic shot of the empty helicopter we last saw Tammy and Andy in, accompanied by the sound of the world ending over the radio. 28 Days Later ends in a pastoral aftermath, with Jim awakening to their pending rescue. Ending the movie in this second Aftermath does not prevent the studio from creating a sequel, as demonstrated, and having 28 Weeks Later end without leaving S.H.T.F. means that the mainstream audience is less likely to enjoy their experience. People who don’t like zombie movies are not the kind of people who want to leave the theater still worrying about the zombies. 28 Days Later is a dramatic, well-crafted interlude into a genre that traditionally only appeals to a niche audience, and the reason it enjoyed so much success was that it allowed mainstream viewers to dip their toes into the genre, and then yank them out before the zombies bite them.

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