Always one day away from the horror: “The Returned”

February 2, 2014


Lest there be any confusion about this, the movie I’m reviewing is a Canadio/Spanish production called The Return. It should not be confused with the French TV series also titled The Return (Les Revenants in France), showing on the Sundance Channel. The two works are completely different entities. The film The Return is about the dead coming back to life—whoops…okay, they sort of have that in common. But The Return is not a zombie flick, per se, but instead grapples with the impact of those events (aw, dammit). Okay, they sound alike on paper, but they really couldn’t be more different. Trust me on this…

So, The Return is being sold as a zombie movie…of a sort. But look closer, and you’ll notice the poster’s tagline: “Neither zombie nor human,” and that’s a pretty good encapsulation of what kind of movie this is—a movie that’s more defined by what it’s not. If that seems like a criticism, I assure you it’s not intended to be. But The Return is a movie that constantly teases at a standard genre movie going on just beyond the present scene, but instead tells a very different, though not unattached, story.

The movie takes place shortly after the second great zombie outbreak, and yet we’re not living in Walking Dead land—you know where everyone is armed to the teeth and no one sleeps or bathes. Instead, society is, well pretty much okay. We learn that after the first outbreak, scientists isolated the zombie virus and managed to create a protein blocker for it. If administered quickly enough upon exposure (and, you know, assuming the patient’s brain hasn’t been eaten yet), the zombie-fication can be prevented. As long as the patient takes his dose of the vaccine every day, he’ll be just fine. Miss a dose, however, and it’s zombie time. These patients are called the Returned.

The story covers a few fraught days in the life of a Canadian couple, Alex and Kate (Kris Holden-Ried and Emily Hampshire). Kris is an MD who specializes in the Returned, and times are tough for her. A growing segment of society isn’t terribly comfortable living alongside folks one injection away from eating them for lunch, and a militant anti-Returned group has become bolder in their resistance.

Alex is a rumpled, vaguely-boho guitar teacher at the local school. He’s also Returned himself. Kate and Alex have been keeping this fact a secret in order to protect Alex, and Kate has been buying doses of the drug under the table to supplement the doses Alex gets from the government. As the film begins, Alex decides he wants to reveal his secret to their friends Jacob and Amber (Shawn Doyle and Claudia Bassols). It all goes well, and the four of them begin to band together against the increasing-tension in society aimed at the Returned.

Things are hitting a critical mass, since stocks of the vaccine are running low. The key ingredient must be harvested from the spinal fluid of dead zombies, and society has just about run out of hosts. The government has been racing to come up with a synthetic substitute, but it’s an open question whether they’ll be able to do so before a lot of people start zombie-ing out.

This has led the militant anti-Returned groups to become more violent in their efforts. Early on, we see vandalism and graffiti, and a news report covers the lynching of several Returned. Soon, however, they hit the hospital, slaughtering the newly Returned, and, in an unbearably-tense scene, threaten to kill Kate and her staff. They also steal the medical records containing the names of all the Returned.

Soon afterwards, the government begins quarantining all the Returned, sending police house to house to round them up. Soon, Kate, Alex, Jacob, and Amber find themselves dodging these various fronts, while trying to decide their next move. What is dreadfully-clear, however, is the fact that there is no long game to be played here. Alex has only a few months’ worth of the vaccine. The rest of film puts these characters through their paces, as they must make a series of impossible choices.

If you’re waiting for a zombie apocalypse on par with something like 28 Weeks Later, you’ll be disappointed. We see only a few zombies, and they’re largely inconsequential to the plot. Instead, the movie is about those impossible choices the characters must make, and how far they’re willing to go to protect themselves.

It’s to the credit of filmmakers Manuel Carballo (who directed), and Hatem Kraiche (who wrote), that none of the characters emerge morally-uncompromised. Alex comes off best, refusing to give into pure survival, but everyone finds themselves driven to greater and greater acts of desperation.

The world of The Returned touches on a number of social anxieties such as the frailty of our social fabric in the face of disaster, the limitations of government to address massive public-health matters, and the specter of violence lurking behind passionate (and, it should be noted, well-meaning) political movements. Interestingly, the film has a lighter touch when it comes to the government’s martial response to the looming vaccine shortage. There are a few scenes that glance upon some Gestapo imagery, but the filmmakers never grab for the low-hanging fruit.

The most striking plot element, though, is the portrayal of life with an incurable and potentially-dangerous medical condition. If the era of AIDS brought us body-horror in the form of The Thing and numerous outbreak movies (and probably planted the seeds for the resurgence of the zombie genre), The Returned is the first genre film I’ve seen that deals with life in the controllable-HIV era. Alex’s condition quietly alienates him from society, and bonds him to others with the same secret.

Bottom line, The Returned is an interesting, sometimes-gripping, movie. It represents a maturity usually not found in genre movies. It’s not interested in the monsters in the dark, but instead what we might well become when the threat of those monsters loom—not monsters ourselves, but flawed, desperate, and heartbreakingly human.

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