The Returned is not a zombie flick. The people infected and “returned” are not zombies, as even Kate protests the label by anti-returned thugs as they hold a gun to her head. This film follows a new tradition forged by the 2002 movie 28 Days Later but unlike 28 Days Later the origin of the virus is never explored, as it isn’t the reason for the film. Instead the virus is the catalyst for the questions having those “returned” living with the unaffected population raise. The Returned also differs from other ‘zombie flicks’ since it is neither post-apocalyptic nor does it seem to use science or scientific experimentation as the cause for the outbreak. It is filled with hope that science would eventually save the day & it uses the idea of being “returned” as allegory for any disease with the potential to harm others. Does being a victim of a chance infection really make someone not as valuable as someone else? And who gets to decide who has value and who doesn’t? The answer each character comes to is what drives each of them through the story set in world with the realistic backdrop of what our reaction probably would be in such a world.
The movie takes place in Toronto and just north of the city in an unnamed rural get away but was filmed almost exclusively in Sudbury, where the movie was screened for their 25th annual Cinéfest. The story centers on Kate (Emily Hampshire), a doctor in the Returned Unit who has a tragic past and complicated present. Her husband, Alex (Kris Holden-Ried), is a music teacher who six years previous was infected with the virus that has the potential to turn him into a flesh eating rage monster if he doesn’t inject himself daily with a retrovirus that was created to keep another outbreak at bay, like the one described in the film as having happened in 1981 that resulted in over 100,000 dead. But rumors of a depleting stock of the virus combined with increasingly violent attacks by anti-returned groups leads the couple to go on the run with the help of Alex’s long time best friend Jacob (Shawn Doyle), and his author wife Amber (Claudia Bassols).
The story written by Hatem Khraiche was intelligently crafted with attention paid to all the threads, be they characters or objects, so that nothing is left to fray or be pulled by ponderous minds after the credits roll. Although it was dark, I appreciated how everything fit together without feeling too coincidental or asking for extra willing suspension of disbelief. The actors came across as natural and true to their characters’ personal histories. When Alex comments to Jacob about an event 25 years earlier I believed the two knew each other way back when. The characters actions reveal them more than any exposition so that what they do does not feel forced or necessary only for the story to advance. The pace of the film is relentless. There is a story to be told and it does not offer any breathing room as it is told; a reflection of the stress both Alex and Kate must be under as they attempt to flee their fate. The movie itself is intense and the music by Jonathan Goldsmith is perfectly matched to each moment, and the cinematography by Javier Salmones was remarkable in that it fit so well it never took me out of the story. I won’t spoil the ending, but the last few shots of the film take a sharp turn in tone that does feel disconnected from the rest of the movie but despite this seeming tonal shift, in the immediate moment right after the climax of the film, it does offer the audience closure.
The ending aside, the film never stumbled under plot or weighty exposition and the true horror of this not-zombie film wasn’t in the sudden shocks or over the top gore so favored in the genre but in decisions people make when faced with an incredible choice and the harrowing consequences of those choices. It asks the question of what is more important, friendship or love. And how far one is willing to go or willing to give up for either.
The Returned was released in Spain November 15th and will be released in the US on February 14th, 2014. No word yet on other countries but deals have been inked in Canada, Australia, the Middle East, India and Indonesia.