The Returned: Film Review

The Returned - H - 2013
Filmax International
A smart, politically correct upending of the zombie myth, focusing with mixed results on the human rather than on the horror.

The team behind "[REC]" co-produces a thriller that boldly states that, hey, zombies are people, too.

If ghosts and vampires can be victims, The Returned wonders, then why can't zombies be victims too? A valiant alternative take on the genre, Manuel Carballo's follow-up to his accomplished exorcism item Exorcismus likewise focuses on the human effects of living in fear and so feels more like thriller than chiller. Though well put together -- it keeps up the interest throughout and offers much food for thought -- the film lacks the authentically unsettling note that would have made it stand out. Designed to appeal to the touchy-feely side of the zombie horror fan base, this mid-budget Spain/Canada co-production has seen healthy presales including a U.S. pickup by LevelFILM, where a mid-February release is scheduled.

There are loose similarities here to the background to World War Z. The returned of the title are unfortunate, bloody-mouthed and white-eyed victims of a viral pandemic. The twist here is that, if they're regularly injected with a particular protein, they can lead normal lives for 36 hours. The dramatic focus is on the plague's effects on cozy, good-looking middle-class foursome, doctor Kate (Canadian actress Emily Hampshire, best known for Snow Cake), her guitar teacher partner Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) and their friends, writer Amber (Spaniard Claudia Bassols, looking very femme fatale) and Jacob (Shawn Doyle).

Kate works in the returned unit at a hospital where reserves of the protein are running dangerously low: it's revealed early on that Alex is himself returned, which drives the whole plot. Kate has been reduced to illegally buying and illegally stockpiling the proteins to ensure his survival, thus opening up questions about the conflicts between the personal and the professional.

Things feel solid and well-crafted until the final 10 minutes or so, when there are a couple of too-rushed reversals too many. Surely, too, it’s now time for an embargo on cars chasing people through underground car parks. Tonally things rarely rise above slow-burning tension, with just the very occasional jump moment. What the fans will miss here -- one or two brief shots apart --  is eyeball-rolling gore. In other words, if viewers are brought through the door on the promise of classic zombie thrills, they're going to be disappointed, because that side of things is pretty much over by the time the credits are.

Hatem Khraiche’s script is brave in its attempt at a new(ish) take on the genre, but fails to fully exploit the dramatic possibilities. For its emotional power, the film depends on audiences really engaging with Kate and Alex, but though Hampshire’s just fine as a battling, real-world heroine, Holden-Ried -- zombie or not -- is a little flat, meaning that as a couple, they never really come to life. The stakes, in other words, could have been higher. Likewise, early shots of returned children hardly encourage the viewer to sympathize with the way that Kate is using her privileged position to siphon off the life-saving proteins for her partner rather than for the dying children in her care.

Interestingly for a zombie film -- and it is questionable whether The Returned is a zombie film at all -- none of the main characters are unambiguously "good" or "bad." The real interest is in the way Khraiche riffs on the multiple ambiguities. Very bad things do happen, but they're the result of necessity, not evil. In other words, our world, in which people are forced to do bad things in order to survive.
Society in The Returned splits into those who believe that its victims are a threat who should be either locked up or eliminated (in this film, these guys are the real monsters) and those who believe that they should be recognized as fundamentally human and so kept alive at all costs. This can be read in multiple sociopolitical ways, but has particular relevance to Spain, where there’s ongoing tension between those who believe that the country should bury its traumatized 20th century past and those who believe it should never be forgotten. Apart from that, we could be talking about AIDS, about moral corruption, or about smoking, obesity, the damaging impact on people's lives of budget cuts in the health sector, or about the post-antibiotics world that is now almost upon us. Viewers are free to pick their own meanings in a film that's finally more valuable at the level of its ideas than as an on-screen experience.

Production: Castelao Pictures, Ramaco Media
Cast: Emily Hampshire, Kris Holden-Ried, Shawn Doyle, Claudia Bassols, Emily Alatalo, Paulino Nunes, Melina Matthews, Jamie Lyle, Stephen Chambers
Director: Manuel Carballo
Screenwriter: Hatem Khraiche
Producers: George Ayoub, Julio Fernandez, Gary Howsam, Bill Marks
Executive producers: Alfredo Contreras, Carlos Fernandez, Sandra Fernandez, Adria Mones
Director of photography: Javier Salmones
Production designer: Gavin Mitchell

Editor: Guillermo de la Cal
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
No rating, 98 minutes