Tuesday, October 07, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #7: THE RETURNED (2012)

The Story: Years after the containment of a zombie outbreak, the masses are growing concerned about people who contracted the zombie virus but have been able to suppress it (so far) by using a miracle drug.  Are these disease-carriers a "ticking time bomb"? 

Expectations: Way back in 1978, George Romero offered his own vision for the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse he created.   DAWN OF THE DEAD suggested the possibility of moving beyond dead-end consumer culture into a more enlightened America.  Romero, and every zombie film maker following in his wake, has continued that march in baby steps -- but, for almost every step forward, there seems to be a step back.  Hence the ongoing popularity of zombie movies.  I thought THE RETURNED sounded refreshing, because it is moves so far beyond the initial outbreak.  The zombies are gone... but Romero's "we're them and they're us" dichotomy apparently remains in play.

Reaction: First off, this is not a horror movie.  Yes, there are a few zombies -- but this is mostly a zombie movie without zombies.  Romero always said that his movies are more about the humans than the zombies.  Thematically, that's true.... but George still loves monsters and comic book violence, so there's plenty of that to go around.  THE RETURNED has more in common with dark dramas like THE TRIGGER EFFECT (1996), CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) or NEVER LET ME GO (2010).  It's a mildly futuristic thriller disguised as a zombie movie.  I guess this sort of thing was inevitable, given the success of the zombie soap opera THE WALKING DEAD.  Hardcore horror fans may be disappointed with the lack of gore, but there's still plenty to fear here... because all of the horrors in this film, including the zombies, have real-world correlatives.

Romero says that zombies "could be any natural disaster."  THE RETURNED goes one step further: Zombies aren't the problem.  The zombie virus is the problem.  It could just as easily be Ebola, or any communicable disease.  The point is that it makes people afraid, and this film proposes that when people are afraid they will inevitably turn against each other.  That ugliness bleeds into the highest level of public policy as well as the most intimate relationships.  The most representative sequence in the film is one where a man and a woman fight to the death over a batch of the miracle drug.  The woman is fighting to save her husband, valuing her husband's life above all others.  The man is fighting for his son, valuing his son's life above all others.  In scenes like this, the film forces us to ask ourselves if we wouldn't do the same thing -- then answers its own question on a cynical (and, in my opinion, half-hearted) finale.

I thought this movie was going to play like a smart followup to THE WALKING DEAD.  Imagine the world of that series ten years on, after the zombie threat has been somehow eliminated: How would those characters rebuild civilization after everything they've been through?  Unfortunately, in the world of THE RETURNED, the zombie outbreak apparently never got that serious... or maybe people have just conveniently forgotten how bad it was.  As a result, this movie simply tells the same old story while keeping the monsters tucked away in the shadows. There's nothing here that Romero hasn't already said... but for those with an aversion to comic book violence, I suppose this film might be easier to digest.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: This movie should end sooner than it does.  The preliminary horror movie ending has some real emotional impact.  The coda dilutes it.

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