The zombie narrative isn’t just one of the most extreme and allegorical of modern entertainments, it’s also one of the most exhausted. From The Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, the zombie has represented our world’s racial frictions, class animosities, rampant consumerism, and illegal warfare. When technology began to change the way our filmmakers honed their craft, and increasingly mediate and shape human interaction, the walking dead became metaphors for the encroachment of that very technology (see George A. Romero’s unfairly maligned Diary of the Dead). And in the nerdiest of all zombie texts, Pontypool and The Flame Alphabet, language itself became an infestation. Regardless of the social disruption from which it rises, the zombie’s presence is always cautionary, reminding us in death of the transience of life.
By now, then, zombie-lore enthusiasts may wonder if there’s any meaning left to be gleaned from the carnage the walking dead leave in their wake. While not an English-language adaptation of the French miniseries of the same name, itself a remake of the under-seen They Came Back, Manuel Carballo’s The Returned also concerns the living struggling to coexist with the “returned” following a zombie apocalypse. More conspiracy thriller than walking-dead throwdown, it envisions a world where the threat of gore fuels people’s animosity toward the almost-dead. With the world’s supply of “return protein” running low, a doctor, Kate (Emily Hampshire), illicitly procures and hordes daily doses of the drug that her boyfriend, Alex (Kris Holden-Reid), needs in order to prevent him from turning into a neck-munching horror, hoping against hope that a new protein, or cure, is developed by the time the couple exhausts their secret stash.
In the film, the zombie outbreak was first detected in 1981, and by the time it was contained in 1985, the casualties were upward of 100 million. Today, the titular returned still live in the closet for fear of discrimination—of the world perpetually tiptoeing around them, or of adolescent dweebs throwing rocks at their minivans. Call it Dallas Buyers Club and Zombies, as the story’s timeline and depictions of intimidation against the returned and those who care for them, of Kate’s desperate struggle to ensure that Alex will live another day, feel ripped from an HIV 101 study guide. While this borderline distasteful correlation yields at least one weirdly fraught moment, a dinner during which Alex must gauge the trust of his friends before coming out to them as returned, the filmmakers denigrate this almost poignant existential crisis by turning it into grist for a cheap twist. In the end, The Returned proves that the zombie narrative is still capable of subversion, but does so with the laziest, Lifetime-grade intimations of social relevance.