Imagine the scene: A talented young filmmaker takes the podium at a news conference and explains that, despite the tidal wave of acclaim, his new movie has been misinterpreted from the get-go.
“What you fail to see,” he says, “is that my film, which appears to be about an actual, real-life social problem, is really a complex metaphor for zombies.” And the crowd goes wild.
It has become both an artistic and a critical cliché to discuss zombie movies in terms of what they really “mean” and, 45 years after Night of the Living Dead, a worldwide roll call of auteurs, hucksters and hacks have tried their hand at using the trope of shambling, undead hordes to jab at hot-button issues.
The Canadian-Spanish co-production The Returned doesn’t bring much new to the party, except maybe restraint. For all its determined rib-nudging about prejudice, the medical-industrial complex, and the haves and have-nots, it never quite clarifies exactly what its poor, frothing monsters are supposed to represent.
Kate (Emily Hampshire) is a doctor at a big-city hospital who works with patients who have been classified as “returned” – the victims of a zombie epidemic several decades old and currently in a tentative state of containment. By injecting a special antidote at regular intervals, “returned” people can lead regular lives, but there is a stigma attached: A scene where Kate’s secretly afflicted partner Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) warily “comes out” to another couple over dinner is squirm-inducing in ways that go beyond brain-eating gore.
The Returned can’t transcend its packaging as a genre piece: It swaps out an entire set of horror-movie manoeuvres for trite, TV-style thriller tricks. Hampshire and Holden-Ried are excellent as the lovers coping with a unique stumbling block to their relationship; yet, when they learn that the antidote will soon be in short supply, the film becomes less affecting. The plot twist transforms the rich, multidimensional characters into anxious props in a ticking-time-bomb scenario.
Director Manual Carballo, whose 2010 feature Exorcismus was seen as a straightforward flip through the possessed-child playbook, keeps things moving briskly, and cinematographer Javier Salmones bathes everything in shades of night (the entire film has a doleful, greyish tinge). The quiet elegance of the film’s craftsmanship is a point in its favour, but it’s a bit self-defeating given that the basic appeal of this material is visceral. A key sequence where a man methodically chains himself to a wall in anticipation of a brutal transformation is telling: This is a serious, austere film that feels as if it’s barely restraining the B-movie within. In the end, it fights itself to a draw.