As horror fans, we’re used to zombie outbreaks running wildly out of control, causing mass chaos and mounting odds. These types of movies love to showcase rotting flesh, gooey kills, and as many walkers as possible – unless you’re The Returned. Director Manuel Carballo and writer Hatem Khraiche fast forward through all the death and destruction, presenting a glimpse into a zombie movie phase most filmmakers refuse to explore – recovery. So many zombie stories focus on nothing but action, as survivors fight through the apocalypse, but what about after the government takes control again and is able to produce some type of vaccine to help newly turned “almost” zombies? What if people were transformed into zombie time-bombs waiting to turn just by missing one single dose? Welcome to the future.
In a world where a zombie epidemic has come and gone, those malicious brain-eaters we’ve come to know as “zombies” have been replaced by people who have been “returned” – bitten by a zombie, but treated quickly enough to freeze the virus. Hospitals everywhere now contain specific “Returned” wards, headed up by researchers like Kate (Emily Hampshire) who are fighting for the rights of those perfectly normal “returned” that are living among us. Even though there’s no imminent danger, people still discriminate against these “monsters” and try to keep the “returned” in their own camps, away from “normies.” When the supply of life-saving medicine starts to run dangerously low, societal tensions start to rise and Kate finds herself in a professional struggle between rioters, businessmen, the fate of mankind, and her own emotional investment when we learn she may be linked directly with one of the “returned.”
Zombies are no longer this horror subgenre worshiped by George A. Romero fans, but instead a full-blown pop culture phenomena. The Walking Dead is breaking viewership records left and right, I’ve run away from zombies during infested 5K races (RIP Run For Your Lives) and every week sees some new zombie release. Surprisingly though, The Returned is fresh, lively filmmaking in a time of stale, stinky zed-head replicas. Hatem Khraiche explores questions and scenarios previously unknown to more narrow-minded/action obsessed zombie flicks, as very few movies actually run long enough to discover some kind of antidote.
We’re also re-introduced to that societal bite that zombie movies of today have lost touch with, introducing global fears that view the “returned” as unequal beings, highlighting acts of aggression in the name of discrimination. Once again zombie movies are capable of carrying obvious political and human undertones where zombies represent something much weightier – not just outlandish corpse re-killings.
The Returned won’t be for all zombie lovers, mainly because of the before mentioned lack of zombies. Embodying more of a thriller structure than horror story, Manuel Carballo directs a suspenseful chase as Kate and Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) are fighting a governmental shortage of life-saving drugs while it’s the living who present violent opposition. Kate also has a deeper struggle as her professional life conflicts with Alex’s “returned” state, sneaking extra vaccinations at the expense of other innocents, creating multiple dilemmas enthralling enough to make us forget about the overabundance of living characters.
While invigorating and enjoyable, The Returned falls victim to a predictable and unfortunate ending – one that I’m sure will shock irregular horror fans while leaving more perceptive genre watchers unappeased. Alex and Kate’s plight is more a labor of love than fight for survival, and Khraiche calls upon their relationship for every possible moment of heartbreaking sadness. In doing so, he charts familiar waters that end with a typical “gut-punch” finale, extending one scene too far. For horror fans, sometimes less is more, letting our minds navigate where our story could possibly still reach – yet The Returned attempts one final outreach to hook hopeless romantics who might have accidentally stumbled into a movie about zombies.
Despite a lackluster ending forgetting all implications of suspense and horror, The Returned absolutely succeeds in shining a brand new, inviting light on the zombie subgenre. Avoiding B-Movie chuckles or overly gory terror, Hatem Khraiche gives hope for the living, but introduces brand new problems in doing so. If Danny Boyle ever got around to 28 Months Later, I imagine it’d be exactly like The Returned – addressing societal quandaries while man conquers one of horror’s most iconic undead curses.
The Returned is a zombie movie without the zombies, generating scares through social commentary and human nature, which actually makes for a welcome change of pace.