Nine times out of 10, the dead rising from their graves spells doom for the living. That one other time, though, a mass zombie scenario poses logistical and ethical quandaries rather than the single-layered conundrum of staying alive. It’s easier to deal with ghouls when they see your body as an all-you-can-eat raw bar. It’s much harder to deal with them when they’re no longer ghoulish, having reverted either back to human status, or at least grown docile enough that you no longer need to fear their hunger for your tasty flesh.
Summed up in a gore-caked nutshell, that’s Irish writer-director David Freyne’s The Cured, a fresh entry in the “What happens when the undead come back to life?” zombie film sub-genre. Being as there’s endless value, whether entertainment, shock or otherwise, in the standard zombie movie blueprint — zombies attack, human survivors fight them off or flee, human survivors start to engage in tribalist quarrels among themselves, the zombies win if only on moral grounds — it may come as a surprise to realize that there are enough films that diverge from the norm to qualify for their very own niche. But that’s the reality: The Cured, starring Ellen Page and out now, isn’t new. It’s the cousin of films ranging from Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies, Robin Campillo’s They Came Back, Manuel Carballo’s The Returned, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and even George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.
Whatever form zombie movies take, the questions they confront us with remain more or less the same: We’re forced to consider what being human is really all about, though the shape that idea takes varies from one movie to another depending on its intent. They might root that theme in existential anxiety (a la Peter Jackson’s Braindead, whose hero confronts his mommy issues through a literal and absolutely disgusting rebirth) or in social unrest (as in every single Romero movie ever, which touch on topics from consumer culture to racism), but the effect is always the same. When presented as rotting, shambling, brain-craving corpses, zombies are reflections of us. When presented as humans recovering from zombified thralldom, they reflect us in more direct terms.
In The Cured, a zombie plague spreads across Europe, instigated by the “Maze virus,” which turns anyone infected into a mindless cannibal. (Zombie purists might argue with The Cured‘s legitimacy as a zombie movie, being as the zombies are bloodthirsty berserkers instead of true undead, but for the sake of continuity let’s just call them relatives.) When the film commences, science has concocted a cure and restored the infected to their humanity, except in Ireland, where a quarter of the infected population are still raging lunatics. (If this puzzles you: Couched in British locales, the concept of an epidemic of any kind is terrifying, because disease outbreaks tend to be devastating when you’re isolated from the rest of the world.) Because people are awful, the cured are subject to either institutional discrimination or outright hatred, and the weight of that prejudice drives the film forward.
The Cured is closest in substance to The Returned, but echoes with elements of each of its peers, especially They Came Back and Shaun of the Dead. What do you do with the dead when they try to go back to their old lives? Do you just live and let live, or do you monitor the hell out of them and stick them in menial jobs beneath their pre-death social standing? In The Cured, Senan (Sam Keeley) works at the government lab holding the remainder of the infected, despite a lack of qualifications. His friend, Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), is given work as a custodian, even though he was formerly a barrister and a local-level political candidate. At least in They Came Back, the decision to assign the returned to low-skill vocations is made after careful observation. Turns out that being dead, even for a short while, has a way of hampering your ability to handle problem-solving tasks.
The authorities in The Cured don’t even entertain that as an option. You get the sense Freyne means to evoke memories of the Troubles, or perhaps the Irish War of Independence, or really any national conflict involving the Irish Republican Army, who historically fought using the kinds of guerilla tactics we see Conor embrace as he becomes a freedom fighter for the infected as well as the cured. Warm Bodies follows that bent, too: Revived zombies are treated with caution, and not unfairly, because let’s face it, you’d be wary around a person if you knew that just the other day they killed and ate another person with their bare hands and didn’t think twice about it. Consider the flip side of that wariness, too. The cured remember their victims, you see. Readjusting to normalcy is tough even when you aren’t burdened with knowledge of your own acts of cannibalism. There’s caution aplenty to go around here.
But The Cured treats that caution with a sober hand. Around the cured, people are paranoid at best and violently bigoted at worst. They vandalize homes where the cured are sheltered, harass them on the streets and ultimately mold them into the monsters that the living have been afraid of all along.
On paper, none of this sounds “new” in line with other “living dead” zombie films, but The Cured treats its subject with a blunt gravity that separates it from the rest. (Excepting, perhaps, They Came Back, which is undoubtedly the most heartbreaking of the bunch.) Films like it have come before, so credit to Freyne for tweaking ingrained expectations enough that his work resonates. It feels original.
The zombie genre isn’t the oldest in horror cinema’s repertoire — vampires predate White Zombie, arguably the first zombie film, by at least a decade — but it is one of the most enduring, which feels appropriate; zombies keep on coming, and so too do features about them. But it’s the rare zombie film that gives us a new angle on a well-worn tradition, and The Cured, for now, is that film.