Zombies have been the bread ’n’ butter monster for direct to DVD horror movies for the past several years in part because they’re cheap to “create” and there’s a generally accepted fear of being swarmed by a mob intent on eating your insides. A potentially greater fear is often left unexplored though in the more emotionally-based terror of losing a loved one to the chaos only to see them return to nibble on your fleshy bits.
The Returned takes this idea, blows it up a bit, and then does something fairly surprising. It decides not to be a zombie horror movie at all.
The viral outbreak that led to a zombie apocalypse has come and gone, and society is trying to move forward. A cure of sorts was discovered that brings the recently infected back to normal, but the injections are needed on a daily basis. If one shot is missed, the returned (as they are labeled) fall prey to the infection permanently and become card-carrying zombies, and no amount of the drug will change that. So it’s a bit of bad news for everyone when the drug supply runs empty.
Kate (Emily Hampshire) is a doctor who works with the returned, slowly nursing them back to health before sending them home with a government-sanctioned prescription for the medication. She’s also been making illicit purchases of the drug on the side and storing it in her fridge just in case the rumors are true and production is halted. No, not so she can help her patients should worse come to worse. Her husband, Alex (Kris Holden-Ried), is one of the returned.
Society is already on edge over recent events, so the possibility of the returned returning to a bloodlust-fueled state alarms them and sets in motion an increase in organized discrimination. The returned are treated as different and potentially dangerous, and as events grow darker Kate and Alex are forced on the run. But while they can hide from the law and an unruly mob, avoiding the virus inside Alex, coiled and ready to strike, may just be impossible.
To be clear, this is not a traditional zombie flick. Instead, it’s an incredibly solid suspense drama about people in a desperate situation, one that just so happens to involve the threat of zombies. The two leads give strong performances with Hampshire in particular delivering real emotion as Kate struggles to protect her husband and her ideals. Holden-Ried, who resembles Coldplay’s Chris Martin, has the stiffer, colder half of the equation, but it works for a character on the brink of calling out for “more brains!”
Hatem Khraiche’s script pairs compelling drama with a frightening “what if?” scenario, and the majority of what follows, for better or worse, feels real. The battle between the living and the dead is replaced with one between the compassionately optimistic and the hate-filled fearful. The returned of the title could easily be an allegorical stand-in for minorities, people with AIDS, Trekkers… basically any group that finds themselves the target of unreasonable discrimination, and while the connection is lessened a bit by the fact that a resurgence of zombies would in fact be a dangerous thing, it remains an engaging dramatic point.
There are missteps too though, most notably in the flashbacks to Kate’s childhood where she witnessed her zombified father attacking her mother and was subsequently forced to shoot him in the head. The scenes play over the opening credits, but they return a couple times later on culminating in the incredibly poor decision to place one at a highly emotional moment. The flashback interrupts the power of the scene and plays for so long that the drama and weight of it all is nearly destroyed.
Director Manuel Carballo’s film is easily one of the most attractively-shot zombie films out there, and it deserves a higher profile. The Returned shares some thematic similarities to the recent UK series, In the Flesh, as well as a title with a French show, but it stands on its own as an exciting and suspenseful thriller with a strong pair of leads at the forefront. See it with someone you love before they become a zombie.
The Upside: Beautifully shot; well-acted; sharply written drama and suspense; fantastic ending
The Downside: Suspense occasionally hobbled by character stupidity; flashbacks are unnecessary
On the Side: The Returned is also the name of a French film from 2004 and a TV series from 2012 (released last year on US television) about people who return from the dead hoping to fall back into their lives and society.
The Returned is currently on VOD and in limited theatrical release.