Every time I declare that I never want to see another zombie apocalypse again – and the flow of ordinary-to-dire ZA movies is overhwelming and undiminished – someone does something fresh with the concept. Lately, there have been several interesting new takes from British film and TV creatives – perhaps starting with … 28 days later, and taking in Sean of the Dead, Dead Set, In the Flesh, Harold’s Going Stiff, The Dead Outside and Stalled, which are all noteworthy. …28 days later and Sean are even among the most influential ZA movies of the 21st century.
Adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel and directed by Colm McCarthy after a career in high-end UK TV (Doctor Who, Sherlock, Endeavour, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders), it’s an astonishingly confident effort, assimilating its influences (like 28 days, it owes a lot to Day of the Triffids – especially the 1981 BBC version – though it also has some of the feel of Day of the Dead, least-appreciated of Romero’s first trilogy), coming up with genuinely new twists of the old old story, delivering its quota of scare and suspense scenes and packing a real emotional punch. Tweenage Melanie (Siennia Nanua) is one of a group of orange-suited children reared in a concrete bunker on a military base and treated as test subjects by Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, looking chilly and grim – a bit like late period Kirk Douglas) but humanely by teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Here, there’s an echo of Losey’s The Damned – and, by association, more John Wyndham, from The Midwich Cuckoos to The Chrysalids – but it’s not until Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Consodine), boss of the platoon charged with shepherding the strapped-into-wheelchairs kids from cell to classroom, wipes a gel off his arm and shoves it near a child that we realise the children suffer from a fungal infection that has reduced most of the population of the country (and the world?) to flesh-eating zombies whose puffy mushroomy look harks back to Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies but whose particular mutation parallels the real-world phenomenon of ‘zombie ants’.
Caldwell says the subjects only ‘present at children’ and Parks loathes them for reasons not revealed until the end, but Helen is caring and feels that they are real people with an affliction – a presumption that is interrogated as rigorously as any opposing view and does prove subtly to be in error in an unexpected, transcendent finale. The Romero tipping point comes early on in exciting scenes as the base is overwhelmed, with Melanie ferally defending Helen – living out a fantasy story she has written – and brought along by Caldwell – who thinks the kid’s brain and spine hold the key to a vaccine – on a cross-country trek in an armoured car and then a walk through an overgrown London where ‘the hungries’ stand about as if rooted until their attention is caught. Also in the city are a group of wild child creatures like Melanie – they are infected babies who have eaten their way out of pregnant women and come out as hungries who can think. A working mobile laboratory is found and arguments take place about how to proceed, with the dying Caldwell – from untreated sepsis, not the usual infection – planning to cut up Melanie before she goes, to save the world while Helen seeks another way and Melanie gets a sense of what her untutored peers have been making of the leavings of the city. Worn-out hungries have fallen and sprouted tree-like growths with seed-pods that could spread the infection – which swarm up over the Post Office Tower. The finish finds Melanie making her own decision of which world to save.