Contains mild spoilers.
It's probably not coincidence, what with the explosive re-emergence of zombies and the rise of the right wing political agenda, that two independent teams would come up with a near identical twist on post-apocalyptic story telling. Okay, BBC's In the Flesh is working class Northern Britain, and The Returned is urban middle class America, but the idea of a recovered and functioning post-zombie world as a backdrop to tell a rather relevant moral tale of a castigated minority dealing with that seemingly inescapable human and political condition, of hating and attacking what we fear; is remarkable in its similarity. Both present a modern bruised but stoical world soldiering on as normal despite a recent history, that's implied, certainly did play out more like what we're used to seeing from the genre. Both have as a focus a young and innocent victim, now survivor, burdened with a manageable but less than ideal medical treatment plan. And both paint a distinctly un-rosy picture of how society would likely react when forced to reintegrate thousands of gut-munchers in waiting back into their everyday lives. Both too, are poignant, insightful and tragic portrayals of how easily a small but vocal set of voices can garner power, and most importantly tacit approval, when fuelled by a narrative that's predominantly all about fear and security. They're both, it could be argued, liberal agenda, politically correct and unrealistically idealist and romanticised, and both could easily switch out 'zombie' for another conservative threatening medical ailment or idea; but for both the choice of using the undead in all their bloody rawness works remarkably well to highlight and contrast the polarised positions as well as providing a tense, entertaining and quirky movie experience.
There are differences of course. Big ones. In the Flesh is mostly Kieren's story where as in The Returned, as much as the film is concerned with Alex (Kris Holden-Ried) and his condition, the film is really about Kate (Emily Hampshire), his partner and a doctor on the front line, dealing both with the practical recovery of the 'returned', and in securing funding for, and pushing awareness of the treatment plan. 1981 saw the first outbreak and the global zombie pandemic really did seem to be as nasty, indiscriminate and prolific as one would expect with one hundred million deaths, a second wave and a full five years needed to contain it. It's five years since Alex was bitten, contracting the infection and though he's managed to maintain his daily injection and hold down his guitar tuition position he's pretty much chosen to keep this part of his life hidden even from best friends Jacob (Shawn Doyle) and Amber (Claudia Bassols). Though people are aware that the 'returned' are moving and operating about the city and country, there are constant signs of dissent and though the truce is successful and legally maintained those infected are rightfully wary of publicity. Kate and Max's story is both a beautiful tale of unconditional love and support, and a harrowing journey of fear and hatred as public confidence in the program wanes as chatter starts to surface of issues with the stock of the protein which keeps the dormant zombie at bay; and peaceful protest turns to retribution and violence.
As would be expected, other than a few flashbacks and one particularly gnarly incident at a gas station the violence and threat comes from the anti-returned humans who seek the eradication of all those infected, treated or otherwise. And one of the problems is, as despicable their thinking and behaviour increasingly becomes, the actions of Alex and Kate as the contrast; isn't if we're honest that virtuous and really not much better. The whole argument of the anti-returned is how can we trust thousands of time-bombs to religiously adhere to their daily program without supervision or tracking; when one missed dose could easily lead to a multiple deaths and another mini-outbreak and the thing they kind of have a point. Yes there's the libertarian view that people shouldn't be monitored and their treatment shouldn't be tracked; yet we're not talking about a condition that if personally mishandled would affect one or two people; we're talking about something that with the slightest mistake could set off a exponential tsunami of death. Add to this Kate abusing her medical position to acquire 'other peoples' medication and Alex who's happy evading any and all official scrutiny in that it might threaten his personal liberty and freedom and their moral position starts to unravel. There's a lack of subtlety to proceedings and it's ultimately hard to have as much sympathy for the couple as I believe was hoped.
One thing that is brilliantly unsubtle though is each cameo arrival of an actual zombie. Snarling, rabid, 28 Days Later infected though not dead, they're every bit the down right cannibalistic psychopaths the non-returners have argued the state really ought to be worried about. There's much left deliberately ambiguous as to the state of the world outside the city. One hundred million dead is an awful lot and whilst people are driving about, shopping and working with time on their hands to learn guitar and protest, I couldn't help but think about the state of the wider world, not picturing for one moment how more poverty inclined countries couldn't still be having problems.
A good idea, great characters brilliantly portrayed, effortless and evocative filming and production, it's a shame that writer Hatem Khraiche and director Manuel Carballo's vision ultimately fails to pull together to either provide a satisfying conclusion to the highly charged personal story, or a fitting end to thea wider political and ethical discourse. At no point do any of the characters feel as powerless or as heroic as they ought with Kate's increasingly unethical and brazen attempt to circumvent the rules for personal gain a constant thorn in the story. To counter this and retain their position as the true baddies of the piece, the anti-returners have to be even more extreme in their actions. Not content with pushing the quite reasonable agenda of basic surveillance and some form of accountability; it's all a bit black and white villainy with guns and killing and spilt blood stained teddy bears on the hospital floor. Still, a nice little film that my nitpicking aside does deliver both on its emotional and poignant promise, and is a tight dramatic experience that should appeal to both zombie fans and those less undead enamoured alike - 6/10.