Certainly, there is something admirable about director Manuel Carballo‘s zombie drama “The Returned” when it uses the opening credits sequence to address the conventions of the genre, only to completely move away from them for the rest of the film. But the gamble never quite pays off the way you want it to. A mostly unnecessary flashback sequence—that is never returned to again until it’s required to do some third act heavy lifting—gives horror fans what they come to expect from anything zombie related: blood, screaming, guns, more blood and terror as the dead become fearsomely undead. It’s a concession to the audience, but a smartly played one even if it’s structurally unsound, and it’s a crudely efficient setup for what is ultimately a zombie medical drama.
As is the current vogue of contemporary films about brain eaters, the modern rise of zombies in “The Returned” occurs when a mysterious virus sweeps across the planet and… well, you know the rest. However, the conceptually refreshing twist here is that the problem has already been solved through drugs that don’t quite cure, but help the afflicted retain normal, happy, human lives. But there are two problems: first, injections must be taken every day or else the zombie virus will come roaring back to life presenting a danger to the patient and anyone around them and second, the vaccine is running out. So what does this mean for society and zombies? Can something be killed again once it has been brought back to something resembling life? What are the moral and ethical implications of that? What does it mean to be human if you’ve been Returned? These are all fascinating ideas that are briefly touched up on in “The Returned,” only to be abandoned for a film whose restraint ultimately reveals it to be a mostly empty shell.
Emily Hampshire leads the cast as Kate, a doctor and leading researcher into finding a cure for the zombie curse, who has a prickly and fiery passion for her work. Why? Well, that’s because her music teacher boyfriend Alex (Kris Holden-Reid) happens to be Returned, but is in the closet about his condition (an interesting social texture that is unfortunately fleeting in the film). But Kate doesn’t just rest her hopes on her research to finally solve the medical riddle to his disease. She’s been secretly buying up a stash of the vaccine from an accommodating nurse selling off whatever she smuggles out of the hospital’s supply closet. And good thing too. When a government order comes down for all the Returned to report to what are essentially internment camps, Kate and Alex go on the run fearing the worst. But who can they trust?
And while that certainly sounds thrilling, in practice “The Returned” mostly feels like an episode in a TV series based on this premise, stretched to a feature length running time. And though it only clocks in at just over 90 minutes, you feel every passing minute of the film, with the script by Hatem Khraiche ploddingly hitting every narrative post that needs to be passed, until the Inciting Incident arrives to kick the finale of the movie into gear. And if the patience of the viewer had been rewarded in the last third of the film, perhaps the rudimentary framework of the movie could be forgiven. But “The Returned” is never quite certain what it wants to be, and by the the end it tries a bit of everything—chase movie! ticking clock thriller! vengeance flick! tragic drama!—all of them undercooked, with developments that don’t ring true for some of the characters involved.
There is something potentially special in the elements of “The Returned,” with its allusions to class and social structures, and stigmas held around people with certain afflictions. But it merely nods toward them with no commentary or depth. There is a smarter picture hiding somewhere in Carballo’s film, and a more entertaining one too, but neither the screenwriter or director can bring a pulse to their lifeless film. Marred by obvious plot developments (there’s a reason we haven’t mentioned any other characters in the film or much else about the story because you’ll figure out what happens fairly quickly) and a disappointingly lazy reliance on the very clichés the movie mostly tries to avoid (what on Earth could that noise in the abandoned gas station be?) “The Returned” is never quite clever or confident enough to become the subversive zombie film it wants to be. [C-]