Written and Directed by: David Freyne
Starring: Ellen Page, Sam Keeley, and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The cure is just the beginning.
The zombie apocalypse is permanent, or at least that’s usually the case; after all, that’s what makes the premise so horrifying—there’s no going back to the world as you knew it, which has been replaced by a nihilistic hellscape. It’s no wonder this particular genre has been a breeding ground for bleak portrayals of a human race adjusting (poorly) to this new world, so much so that I think I could review one of these things in my sleep at this point. Imagine my surprise (and relief), however, upon learning that The Cured goes in a different direction altogether, offering a glimpse of hope with its hook: “what if zombies could be cured of their ravenous bloodlust?” What’s more, David Freyne’s film imagines humanity pulled back from the brink as it attempts to rebuild civilization: this is the end of a zombie apocalypse after all, complete with the former infected being reintegrated into society.
That process is done amid tensions, however, most of humanity has reservations about allowing these rehabilitated zombies simply return to their normal lives. Their release back into society is met with protest, as many consider them to now be second-class citizens. Senan Browne (Sam Keely) experiences this first hand after he’s released from a rehabilitation center to live with his sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page) and nephew Cillian (Oscar Nolan). Like the rest of his fellow cured, Senan still lives with the horrific memories of his time when he was infected by the MAZE virus, a disease that turned him into a mindless flesh-eater. One cryptic memory—which is revealed in piecemeal fashion during the course of the film—is quite troubling since it also involves Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), an acquaintance from the rehabilitation center and a prominent figurehead in a violent movement to secure equal rights for the cured.
Senan finds himself increasingly torn in his attempt to reclaim a life for himself: while he’s devoted to simply keeping his family safe (especially since his own brother perished during the MAZE outbreak), he’s also drawn to the charismatic Conor, whose fierce advocacy has an obvious appeal. His struggle only becomes more pronounced when his new job brings him face-to-face with the Irish government’s awful plan to eradicate the 25% of the infected population that couldn’t be cured. Working alongside a doctor (Paula Malcomson), he witnesses first-hand the desperate race against the clock to save thousands of lives—all while he reckons with his own shocking actions when his body was hijacked by the virus.
There’s a lot going on in The Cured, which feels like a logical extension of Romero’s living dead thread (and, indeed, nudges up near the same territory the master covered in later films). The strife between humanity and their cured counterparts makes for a blank slate sort of allegory, one that could easily stand in for the Civil Rights movement, apartheid, the AIDS crisis, LGBTQ rights, Europe’s refugee crisis, or, perhaps most obviously, the sectarianism that has plagued Ireland for centuries. Freyne is hardly subtle here, as you could simply overhear dialogue from The Cured and assume it’s referring to any number of real-world issues. This is not to say it’s terminally cliché, however, as Freyne does manage some interesting observations on how a repressed group can easily be swayed into inciting violence; likewise, Senan’s internal conflict about associating with Conor’s movement captures an intimate, micro-level look at the dynamics that can drive one person to such desperate lengths.
The Cured struggles in balancing the big picture with the small picture, however—it’s a movie whose scope is arguably a bit too big and aims to capture too many dimensions of its premise. I hate to say Freyne is too ambitious, but in casting such a wide net, he never quite nails down what type of movie this is supposed to be. It’s at its best when functioning as a quiet, tense character study, especially when it’s focused on Senan’s struggle to reclaim some kind of life for himself. Freyne seems most invested in this too, specifically the awful—but obvious—secret he’s hiding from his sister-in-law regarding her husband: in less capable hands, it’d come off as tawdry soap opera nonsense, but Frenye handles it delicately and allows the drama to chart a nice (if not predictable) redemption arc. It even threads nicely with his increasingly frayed association with Conor, as Senan is eventually forced to make an obvious choice between his family and this movement when the latter grows out of control.
That latter development doesn’t quite dovetail as gracefully with the rest of the film, nor does the subplot involving the doctor’s attempt to cure those last remaining infected. Both of these plots are in the service of that larger scope that’s ill-fitting for such an otherwise intimate film: for most of its runtime, The Cured unfolds with a hushed, ponderous tenor, only to devolve into a boisterous zombie movie during the third act. Despite the film’s clever hook, it circles right back around to the sort of familiar stuff you might expect it to avoid, like hordes of infected flesh-eaters unleashed upon a terrified populace. 28 Days Later feels like an obvious aesthetic influence on most of The Cured, and Freyne leaves little doubt during the final act, which more or less feels like it could be a prequel to Boyle’s seminal film. Whatever aspirations Freyne had about moving this genre forward are all but lost by this point, drowned out by the hail of gunfire and the inhuman growls of the infected. You’re left wondering what happened to that other, more promising film that preceded it.
Unfortunately, it remains frustratingly out of reach. The Cured is a prime example that has so much going for it—a solid premise, affecting performances (Page gives a notably terrific, heartbreaking turn as Abbie), evocative photography, sharp allegorical potential—but somehow doesn’t coalesce. Freyne stretches his story too thin, effectively undercutting both its dramatic and intellectual stakes: ultimately, The Cured looks an awful lot like it has something to say but winds up parroting previous living dead offerings, right down to its somewhat bleak outlook. While a glimmer of hope shines through just before the credits roll, it does so on the heels of the usual sort of misery that’s inflicted upon the poor souls trapped in a zombie apocalypse. Ironically enough, this initially promising effort eventually lurches to the finish line, paralyzed by the rigor mortis of genre expectations.
The Cured is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and IFC films. A trailer and a behind-the-scenes featurette are included as supplements.
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