They are misunderstood and stigmatized. They live under a cloud of fear and suspicion. They are subject to physical and verbal assaults. They fear that the supply of the drug that keeps them alive will soon run out.
They are officially called "the returned," and in Manuel Carballo's film (aka Retornados), they are people who have been infected with a fatal virus but were lucky enough to be treated quickly. The price they must pay is high. They must take a daily drug dose, or the infection will spread throughout their body, transforming them into flesh-eating creatures. No wonder they're known as zombies.
The setting is the modern day, but it's really an alternate world, one in which an infection broke out in the 1980s and spread quickly, eventually claiming the lives of millions. The development of a vaccine (of sorts) made it possible to contain the disease, but no cure has yet been found. With necessary natural proteins for the drug in short supply, and synthetic proteins not yet available, the level of panic in the general population is rising. Anti-"returned" militants insist the only good zombie is a dead zombie, and began taking action to make that a reality, contributing to a doom-laden, toxic environment.
In this troubled world, Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) and Kate (Emily Hampshire) cling to one another. He is a musician and one of "the returned." She is a doctor who specializes in treating "the returned," and a fervent fundraiser for the expensive efforts to develop the much-needed synthetic proteins. Their relationship is gentle yet intense; they demonstrate the comfortable intimacy of longtime lovers, fierce warriors fighting a common enemy.
Early on, Alex 'comes out' to close friends Jake (Shawn Doyle) and Amber (Claudia Bassols), and the allusions to HIV/AIDS remain in sight for the balance of the film. But whatever familiar themes and narrative contrivances there are in Hatem Khraiche's screenplay are outweighed by the manner in which events crash down on the characters and then recede, allowing for breathing space and contemplation of the dire circumstances faced by everyone. In a world in which life-giving supplies are dwindling, how do ordinary people respond? How are priorities established? How far would you go to protect your loved ones? If it's a matter of life and death, who gets to decide?
Under Carballo's direction, the mood is always uneasy. The specter of death hangs heavy, a feeling that is reinforced by Javier Salmones' photography, which favors darker shades of blue and grey, and Jonathan Goldsmith's musical score, which leans on minor chords.
Flashes of bloody, explicit violence mark The Returned firmly as a zombie picture, but it's much more concerned with how people think about, and respond emotionally, to what the walking dead represent than how or when they might be killed. The somber, thoughtful mood lingers long after the credits roll.
The Returned opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, February 14. Visit the official site for more information.