It’s such an ingenious idea for a zombie movie that you’re surprised no one’s thought about it before. A global epidemic turns massive amounts of the world’s population into flesh-craving ghouls. An antidote is found, which allows most of these everyday-people monstrosities to come back from the equivalent of the walking, chomping dead. (Most … but not all.) The catch is that these former mindless killing machines remember every horrible thing they did under the influence of “the Maze Virus” – and they have to live with their memories, their regret, their guilt and their shame. As for folks who suffered loss at the grasping hands and gnashing incisors of these murderers, they have neither forgotten nor forgiven what happened either. And the facade that now everyone is supposed to pretend everything’s back to normal with clean consciences and no consequences is destined to fall apart.
That’s the basic conceit of The Cured, an Irish entry in the living-dead canon – technically, an “infected” movie, the genre’s younger, wilder sibling – that nudges the durable horror-film staple into previously untrod truth-and-reconciliation territory. How does society come back from a collective trauma and start healing?, it asks. How does one reintegrate while dealing with the fallout from bloodlust crimes perpetrated under mass duress? And how the hell do you face your neighbor when they’ve tried to eat your child?
For survivors like Abbie (Ellen Page), the solution is to put your head down, make sure your son gets to his reopened school safely and compartmentalize to the max. For Senan (Sam Keeley), the idea is to put the pieces of his interrupted life back together and do what he can to reintegrate into society – as well as atoning for consuming his brother, who was also Abbie’s husband. And for Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a fellow ex-infected who was once a prominent lawyer and now must make do with custodial work, the goal is to avoid the near-fascistic military forces surveilling the 75-percent of cured citizens and keeping the 25-percent “resistant” quarantined. Meanwhile, the streets are filled with protestors, TV pundits fret over a potential Outbreak 2.0 and a reformed-zombie support group slowly morphs into a militant army with Molotov cocktails and a rather chilling end game in mind.
The fact that The Cured takes place in Irish director David Freyne’s country of origin – a nation with no small history of resistance movements, rebel groups and regional civil warring – is, of course, anything but coincidental. Yet his feature debut could be relocated to Rwanda or Romania, Serbia or South America, a post-Brexit Britain or a country divided over electing a divisive commander-in-chief and still make its down-with-the-sickness mojo work. Ditto the numerous stand-out details and stylistic touches that add layers to his after-the-apocalypse landscape, which range from morbidly mordant (a sign on a bus lists viral symptoms as “loss of reason, numbness, cannibalism”) to downright chilling (a pre-attack moment when the soundtrack mutes everything but the infected’s rapid, hungry panting).
Zombie movies have always been fertile ground for subtle-to-sledgehammering social commentary, whether it’s the civil-rights analogies and consumerist critiques of Romero’s early Dead gross-outs or the one-civilization-breakdown-fits-all blues of the post-28 Days Later renaissance. You can’t even call The Cured‘s populism paranoia and self-admitted explorations of social divisiveness “subtext” – they suck up too much oxygen, take up too much of the spotlight. It’s a moody horror movie that favors metaphor over mayhem until its violent, chaotic final third, at which point the screaming starts in earnest. A bit more balance between gnawing guilt and plain old gnawing would have done this scare-parable wonders. Its bark is worse than its bite. But you hear every point that bark is making loud and painfully clear.