FEBRUARY 21, 2014
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
I've only been to the Music Hall 3 cinema in Los Angeles a few times, but everything I've seen there has been a really bad horror movie. It's where I endured The Lost Coast Tapes, Don't Go In The Woods, and last week's Ganzfeld Haunting; the closest I came to having an enjoyable experience there was Frankenstein's Army, which at least offered some great monster designs (in a bad movie). So when The Returned played there in similar fashion to those (one late show per day, for one week only), I didn't have much hope - I was mostly going out of my weird obligation to see every theatrically released horror movie that I am aware of, regardless of interest. But lo and behold, I liked it! The Music Hall 3 curse is broken!
It's ironic, then, that it'd barely even count as a horror movie. Sure, it's a zombie film at its core, and there are a couple of scares (though a broken plate in a non-zombie scene provided the biggest jolt), but it's really more of a drama that takes a grounded, realistic (well, relatively realistic) approach to a zombie outbreak scenario. As with many a zombie film, a cure is attempted, but there's something that I don't think I've seen before - a medication that keeps the zombie-isms at bay for infected patients. Like a diabetic taking his insulin, the titular Returned have to give themselves a shot of this certain protein every day, and if they do that - they'll be fine. It's those who miss their doses that you have to worry about - something we see once or twice just to sell the danger (and get a few typical zombie shots for the trailer), but otherwise it's a pretty zombie-free world. The outbreak was contained, and the Returned all take their medication, allowing the world to carry on as more or less normal.
So what's the hook? Well, for the first half, there's a focus on folks who fear the Returned aren't as normal as they are said to be, and want to kill them all. It's treated very much like a disease - we even get a conservative blowhard type suggesting that they ship all of the Returned off to an island compound, not unlike his counterparts did in the early days of AIDS. There's a fear among the Returned of even telling their loved ones and friends about their condition - hero Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) tells his best friend over dinner in a manner not unlike someone admitting they have cancer, or "coming out" to their parents. Protesters harass the doctors who work to find a permanent cure, some folks use "the returned" in a derogatory manner... the movie's budget isn't very big, so it's not exactly the most fleshed out scenario - but director Manuel Carballo and screenwriter Hatem Khraiche provide enough to sell the basic concept, which is more than I can say for most indie zombie films.
The other storyline involves Alex's wife Kate, played by the very lovely Emily Hampshire. She's a leading researcher on the cure, and is secretly stocking up on the protein in order to keep Alexfrom zombie-ing out - which we soon learn is a necessity as there is a worldwide shortage looming. This stuff reminded me a bit of Deranged, the Korean virus thriller that also focused on the lengths people would go to for vaccines and medication (Steven Soderbergh's Contagion also dealt with this to some degree). When the stock completely runs out, Kate is attacked for her tiny supply, and there's even some morally gray material to chew on: SHE was hording supplies, knowing that the shortage was coming (sort of like insider trading in a way) - so how is what she's doing really any better than a man trying to save his child or wife? Is it better to let several Returned live an extra week or so, or let just one live for a few extra months?
HEAVY STUFF, in other words - this isn't a movie that starts with medication running out so that we can have a typical zombie outbreak, but focuses on the looming threat of such a thing happening. By focusing on a handful of characters (adults at that!), we get to know and actually care about them and their plight, making us question what we'd do when things get desperate. It's funny, I watched the latest episode of Walking Dead before I left for the theatre, and while I've never been as hard on the show as some of my peers, I found this one to be a particularly frustrating and obnoxious episode, the sort of thing that makes me understand why folks hate on it so much. It's season 4 of the show, and not only do I still not really know much about most of the characters (it took me 20 minutes to even remember Beth's name, and she was the focus of its first half!), I still don't really have much of an attachment to them - when they built a sequence out of the possibility that Glenn had died and turned zombie, I found myself not really caring either way. And that's a guy that's been around for all 40 episodes or whatever it's been! Here, it only took 80 minutes for me to care about Kate and Alex - I was legit upset when it looked like all hope was lost and he started making preparations to keep himself isolated from others should he turn.
I really only have two complaints about the film. One would be that it could use some tightening - there were a couple of lulls, and too many shots of people driving somewhere or walking from their car to the office or whatever - not really padding, just filler that could have been tossed from a movie that didn't have a lot of action in it. I know there will be many who find the movie simply boring, and that's their loss - but the film definitely isn't rushed at any point. The other would be a rather stupid, unnecessary epilogue that I would encourage you to skip, unless you're one of those nuts who liked the idiotic microwave scene at the end of the Last House on the Left remake. I won't spoil its content, but you'll know it when you see the movie, and I hope you can agree that the character would probably have better things to do with his/her time than what is being suggested. It seemed tacked on to give the movie a less dreary ending, but for me all it did was leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Otherwise, I was really impressed. I'm always looking for a new angle on the zombie movie, and while it does share some basic similarities with Les Revenants (aka They Came Back, which has been turned into a TV show called The Returned, confusing the hell out of everyone), I think they're different enough to consider this pretty original (for starters, at least in the movie, there was no traditional zombie stuff). I don't know if I can honestly enjoy yet another ripoff of Day or Dawn of the Dead, with evil humans and survivors holing up in some ____ to yell at each other until the inevitable zombie siege in the final reel - but I can definitely appreciate another movie that looks at it from another, serious point of view. Good job, everyone!
What say you?