The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Returned

Zombie fiction is hotter than ever – in movies, on TV, in comics and books – but the criticism often leveled against it is that there isn't much originality anymore. The rules of the undead were largely established in George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead, and they've only been minimally tweaked since. Perhaps the biggest alteration of the formula came in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which featured undead who could run instead of just lumber. (I know, I know...some people don't consider that a zombie movie. That's a debate for another day.) The Returned is a new zombie flick with a very cool twist that keeps it firmly within the genre while also allowing it to carve out its own unique place.

As is usually the case, the movie opens on a world where the zombie outbreak has already occurred. Scientists have discovered a protein that blocks the infestation, allowing the infected to “return” to normal humanity rather than completely turn into an undead shell of their former selves. There is one hitch: the protein has to be injected into the body every single day; miss a dose and all bets are off. Actually, there's another hitch. Supplies of the protein are running low, causing an immense panic as frantic individuals fight one another to stockpile it. Two of those people are Kate (Emily Hampshire) and Alex (Kris Holden-Ried). She's a doctor who specializes in treating the “returned,” and she slips vials of the protein out of the hospital where she works to give to Alex. When that becomes less possible, Kate tries to find other ways to obtain it, encountering a number of expected – and unexpected – competitors along the way.

The Returned, written by Hatem Khraiche and directed by Manuel Carballo, takes a more reality-based approach to the zombie drama. It's not about slaying the undead, or waiting to see who gets bitten. Instead, it aims to explore what would really happen if such an outbreak occurred and could possibly be treated. In other words, it's more akin to Steven Soderbergh's Contagion than to an episode of The Walking Dead. The early scenes have an eerie quietness as we watch how Alex struggles to reveal his disease to friends and lives in fear of being attacked by the paranoid anti-returned bigots who have cropped up. Kate lives in her own kind of fear, knowing that losing access to the protein essentially means kissing her true love goodbye. The back half of the film focuses on another sort of threat, namely the immense, Darwinian panic that would take place if a much-needed treatment was suddenly in short supply. Even when it moves from the intimate to the more extreme, the film maintains its unsettling edge.

One of the things The Returned does best is to investigate the gray areas of its scenario. There are a number of supporting characters, including the parents of a little boy Kate treats, who also need the protein that she's hording. Is she a hero for trying to save Alex at all costs, or a bad person for trying to take it from someone who needs it just as much as he does? Whom do we root for? There's a subtle investigation of moral issues and ethics underneath the horror surface of The Returned that makes it compelling viewing.

At times, the movie bites off a bit more than it can chew. So many interesting ideas are thrown in that not all of them get enough screen time. You could spin some of them, such as the notion of prejudice and fear against the returned leading to the formation of vigilantes, into their own movie. Still, better a film be too ambitious than not ambitious enough. The Returned is most definitely ambitious. Effectively written, directed, and acted, it builds to a harrowing conclusion that spooks you with the dog-eat-dog reality of a society in which everyone is frantically trying to save a loved one. This is one of the most original, entertaining, and creepy zombie movies of recent years.

( out of four)

Note: The Returned opens in select theaters February 14. It will also be available on demand the same day. Check your favorite VOD platform for details.

The Returned is unrated PG-13 but contains language, some sexuality, and bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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