"28 Weeks Later" moves forward 6 1/2 months to show what came next, and though the original writer and director are gone (director Danny Boyle has stayed on as a producer), their replacements maintain the same grim tone and overcast skies (literally and figuratively). The sequel feels cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, and is nearly as good.
Most of England's population was either killed by the zombies or became zombies themselves, at which point they starved to death when the food supply (i.e., other people) ran out. With Great Britain's being an island having effectively quarantined it, the virus didn't spread worldwide, and now London is slowly being rebuilt. A few thousand people have been let back in to a safe zone called District 1, on the Thames River's Isle of Dogs, with tall apartment buildings, a few shops, and 24-hour electricity. Life is sort of starting to kind of get back to normal, except for the strong military presence in the form of U.S.-led NATO troops to maintain order.
Two young people are among the returning refugees: 12-year-old Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and his older sister, Tammy (Imogen Poots), the children of a District 1 administrator named Don (Robert Carlyle). Scarlet (Rose Byrne), the kindly American nurse who screens them for viruses before they enter, tells Andy he's now the youngest person in the country. Andy and Tammy are thrilled to see their father again, but sad to know their mother didn't make it. Don's account of why that is doesn't quite line up with what really happened, either.
Obviously, the mere fact of the film's existence means there's going to be a new outbreak of the zombie-making rage virus, but the creepy specifics of how that comes to be are chilling. Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who wrote the screenplay with three other men, is not content to merely rehash the plot of the first film, the way many sequels do. He breaks new ground, going in unexpected directions to find delightfully twisted new details: how the virus reappears, the cowardice that sometimes emerges in a crisis, the horrifying things that can go wrong when a government tries to control something it doesn't understand.
We end up with Andy, Tammy, Scarlet the nurse, and an American soldier named Doyle (Jeremy Renner) leading a small band of people on the run not just from the zombies, but also from the military's ill-conceived methods of containing the problem. (Is there an Iraq metaphor in the film? Some have said.) Recall that these are not zombies in the strictest sense, because they are not the reanimated dead. These are living people who have been infected with a virus that renders them animalistic and savage -- but they still have all the strength, agility, and speed of regular people. Which means you can't just walk briskly away; you gotta outrun 'em.
Fresnadillo paces the film well: slow, then fast, loud, then quiet. Some scenes are thrilling rather than scary; others result in sheer wide-eyed terror. (The film is especially smart with regard to knowing when to play music and when to remain silent.) With handheld cameras and natural-looking digital-video photography, he presents the crisis in a realistic way, with all the chaos and claustrophobia an outbreak like this would cause if it really happened.
The ending (except for a fantastic final shot) is rather anti-climactic, and there are minor plot holes. I don't think I cared quite as much about these characters as I did the heroes of the first film, either. I gripped my armrest when their lives were in jeopardy, though, and I came out of the film with a few more gray hairs than I had going in. It's been a dry year for horror so far, so this burst of well-made suspense is a welcome relief.