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Imagine a world where zombies are not only real but have pretty much become accepted as a fact of life. Thanks to a revolutionary retroviral drug, those newly infected with “zombieism” have the chance to lead normal, productive lives, provided they continue to receive regular doses of the serum. These walking dead would look, talk, feel, think and hurt just like the rest of us: they would be virtually undectable, these zombies who were once our co-workers, loved ones and friends. And now imagine what would happen if the life-giving serum began to run out…and there was no hope of getting more?

Such is the focus of Manuel Carballo’s somber The Returned (2013), a joint Canadian-Spanish production that takes a hard look at the measures that desperate people will go to in order to get even a little more time with their infected loved ones, measures that will ultimately lead to betrayal and murder. Offering a fairly fresh take on the zombie film (this isn’t the first of this kind of “reluctant zombie” film but it’s not an overwhelmingly large peer group, either), The Returned often plays more like a melancholy drama about (nominally) losing a loved one to a terminal illness than it does an epic of gutmunching proportions. Nonetheless, the filmmakers manage to come up with a pretty decent combination of zombie violence and indie tear-jerking, offering zombie-philes something a little different to chew on.

Our erstwhile hero, Kate (Emily Hampshire), is a medical researcher who’s on the frontlines of helping to development a synthetic replacement to the dwindling anti-zombie retroviral drug: the original drug is derived from the remains of actual zombies, which are, ironically, becoming¬†harder and harder to come by in a post-zombie world. The breakthrough can’t come soon enough, as news of the disappearing retroviral has begun to send shockwaves through society: those who infected loved ones protest, picket and scheme to get more of the drug, while those who take the old-fashioned “kill ’em all” approach to zombies see the loss of the only controlling agent as a sign that it’s time to just start “killing” the remaining undead and put an end to this part of the proceedings.

Kate has a secret, of course: her beloved husband, Alex (Kris Holden-Ried), is infected and their supplies of the retroviral are running out, too. Kate has been buying extra doses on the sly, from a shady hospital colleague, but the black-market medicine is becoming more expensive and more difficult to acquire. Meanwhile, anti-zombie activists have begun to break into the hospitals that are treating the “returned” and are slaughtering the infected, putting everyone on edge. The government wants the infected to “voluntarily” quarantine themselves into special zones, a tactic which strikes Alex an awful lot like what the Gestapo used to do.

Into this toxic mix are thrown Jacob (Shawn Doyle) and Amber (Claudia Bassols), Kate and Alex’s best friends with their own little secrets. Amber is best-selling children’s’ author who’s decided to branch out into thrillers and Jacob is her adoring agent/husband who constantly propels her career from the margins. The friends want Alex to submit to the government’s quarantine request, if only because they take the stated promise of an upcoming synthetic replacement seriously and want everybody on the right side of the law when it all blows over. A stunning act of betrayal will shatter everyone’s illusions of safety, however, leading Kate and Alex to pursue an increasingly desperate and hopeless series of actions that barrel relentlessly to a tragic, if foregone, conclusion.

Despite being well-made and acted, there came a point during The Returned where I was perilously close to throwing in the towel. To put it bluntly, the film has a habit of trafficking in pure, undiluted misery that can, over time, become a bit overwhelming. Similar to the pitch-black tone of Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream (2000), Carballo and company (working from a script/story by Hatem Khraiche) keep piling one disaster after the other onto poor Kate and Alex, making the whole film one long, tense game of Jenga to see when they’ll come crashing down. At a point, it almost begins to seem bleakly comical, as Kate suffers one mishap after the other, all while the clock ticks down relentlessly to Alex point-of-no-return. The film’s final twist, in particular, is unbelievably cruel and ends the film on a truly sardonic tone.

Hampshire is great as Kate, bringing a strength to her character that balances nicely with the overall sense of impending doom and helplessness. Holden-Ried, for his part, is rather bland but pleasantly so: he makes Alex seem like the kind of nice, anonymous person that most of us probably know, even if we don’t know that we do. That being said, there’s not much depth to his performance, which is a similar issue with Doyle and Bassols’ rather one-note takes on Jacob and Amber. Doyle gets a few nicely emotional scenes with Holden-Ried but Bassols is one archly-raised eyebrow after the other and her sense of coyness wears after a while.

All in all, The Returned was another film that was easier to respect than to actually like. While the movie is well-made, it’s also a pretty unrepentant downer. As someone who’s always appreciated “bummer” endings in horror films, it might seem a little strange to decry a film for this reason (there are minor things to quibble about, of course…the film is far from perfect) but there’s something about The Returned that often feels rather mean-spirited and lop-sided, as if the filmmakers were setting out to punish the characters, for some reason. While The Returned certainly isn’t a chore to sit through, it’s also not a lot of fun, either.