Directed by Manuel Carballo
Like it or not, the zombie movie, which is only slightly more well-received than found footage at this point, is here to stay. While the VOD and direct-to-DVD subset of films tends to err on the side of unoriginal dreck, inspiring ennui and, for some of the more vocal online denizens, inarticulate rage, every so often a ray of light pokes its head through the muck and mire that is the zombie sub-genre. Manuel Carballo’s The Returned seeks to make a name for itself as a “smart” zombie movie, one that dispenses with the traditional “zombie apocalypse” formula in favor of a heavy philosophical bent.
Like The Battery, The Returned is far more concerned with the living than the dead. In this world, the zombie virus is real, controlled with a special protein that, when administered daily, prevents you from turning into one of the walking dead. As a result, the infected tread a dangerous line between living and dead, and for many this is a frightening prospect. For nurse Kate (Emily Hampshire), this is her life, smuggling daily doses of the protein out of the hospital where she works for Alex (Kris Holden-Ried), with whom she fell in love when he came into the Returned Ward. As the protein’s supply dwindles, Kate and Alex go on the run, fighting for a chance to keep Alex alive and prevent him from becoming one of the Returned.
“Zombies as metaphor” is clearly not a new concept, but it is a suitable way to elevate a film above and beyond the traditional “survival” sense; Romero’s introduction of the shambling undead introduced to the world an excuse to perform exegetical analysis on creatures whose motivations and representations change with the times while still struggling to survive in an uncertain world. In the world of The Returned, zombie-ism can be seen as any number of real-world afflictions (poverty comes to mind), but Carballo and screenwriter Hatem Khraiche clearly suggest that it’s a metaphor for HIV and AIDS, albeit on a rather extreme and exaggerated level. Despite the stigma that exists for the disease, it’s no longer a death sentence, and anti-HIV groups don’t go around destroying the dwindling supply of drugs. As it stands, The Returned could have served its metaphor better by focusing on the cost of the protein rather than the fear against the infected.
The end result is a conundrum. While The Returned is admirable in its attempts to inject social commentary and a unique twist into a stale sub-genre, it’s just so heavy-handed in attempts to drive the point home that it drowns out the pathos the film so desperately wants to have. It does possess a very slight amount of solid zombie special effects, and while the performances never truly reach groundbreaking levels, they’re admirable enough to keep the film grounded in its emotional hook, rather than seen as “trying too hard.” This, I think, sums up the film as a whole. It’s never truly great, never truly awful, but instead treads the line between the two.
2 1/2 out of 5