Imagine being trapped in a desolate farmhouse - indulge me here - under attack by flesh-eating zombies. Your cornered spouse is screaming out for help. Do you rush to his or her side, knowing it spells certain doom for both of you? Or do you turn around and hightail it out of there, your beloved's crying out your name in disbelief as you flee?
Most of us would say we'd do the former. But at the beginning of 28 Weeks Later, in a moment of extreme panic, a man (Robert Carlyle) abandons his wife -- the mother of his children -- as she is being attacked by snarling cannibals.
The scene kicks off 28 Weeks Later, a sequel to the British import 28 Days Later, on a disturbing note. It also makes it clear that although Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (who made his debut with 2001's heady sci-fi thriller Intacto) isn't above doling out the sort of ''gotcha'' scares designed to send your popcorn flying, he's also out to make a scary movie in which the horror emanates from a deeper, more profound place than a guy jumping out of the shadows wielding a power tool.
During a recent visit to Miami to promote the film, Fresnadillo, 39, said he wouldn't categorize 28 Weeks Later as horror. ''It's more of an apocalyptic thriller,'' he said of the movie, which relates what happens after Britain, having been almost wiped out by a contagious virus that turned people into raging lunatics, begins the process of rebuilding. ``My goal was always to make a thriller that had horror elements, but right from the beginning of the movie, I wanted to ensure it was always the human beings who create the terror of a situation, not the monsters.''
Buoyed by an increasingly permissive ratings board that has allowed filmmakers to push the boundaries of R-rated violence and driven by moviegoing young adults who can't get enough of the scary stuff, the horror genre is in the midst of one of the longest and healthiest booms in history. The major studios have released 16 movies with horror or thriller elements already this year, and many more are heading our way this summer: Hostel Part II will serve up more torture and dismemberment; Kevin Costner plays a serial killer in Mr. Brooks; Lindsay Lohan loses a few body parts in an encounter with a murderer in I Know Who Killed Me, and the Michael Myers saga will be rebooted for a new generation in Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween.
Like its predecessor, 28Weeks Later falls on the gorier side of the horror film spectrum, following the tradition of rampaging zombie movies inspired by George A. Romero's seminal 1968 freakshow Night of the Living Dead.
But despite its notoriety for pushing the limits of on-screen violence, the low-budget Night of the Living Dead was also a social commentary on the civil rights movement and the changing moral climate in the United States of the late 1960s. And 28Weeks Later, despite its eye gougings and other bits of socially unacceptable behavior, could also be read as an allegory for the U.S. involvement in Iraq, showing what happens when military forces deem individual lives expendable for the sake of a greater good, as well as a cautionary tale about the inevitable societal disintegration that occurs once basic inarguable values, such as the sanctity of human life, are tossed away.
Those rigorously moral and humanistic underpinnings give 28 Weeks Later a kind of power that 100 Saws and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes could never achieve.
''The 20th century has been the most horrific in history in terms of war and blood and violence,'' said David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. ``We live in horrifically violent times, and we've become kind of inured to it, so I don't think it's a coincidence that these movies are so popular again. But I don't think this current crop of ultra-violent films has anything to do with the world around us. They're just part of this horrible dumbing down of popular culture that is taking place.''
28 Weeks Later contains several moments destined to enthrall horror buffs, from a terrifying sequence in which a group of characters must descend a staircase littered with decaying bodies in complete darkness to a quick musical cue in which Fresnadillo pays homage to The Exorcist. The director certainly does not look down on genre: He just believes that there has to be something more going on in a film than surface effect.
''If the audience doesn't feel for the characters in a movie, then it doesn't matter what genre you're working with,'' he said. ``If there is no emotional connection, then the movie evaporates from memory the moment the projector stops. This is a story about war between the virus and the human beings, but it is also the story of a broken family in the midst of that war. And that, I hope, is what ultimately makes this apocalypse feel real,''
And for those who prefer the horror a little less realistic: Saw IV is coming to a theater near you this October.