Sam Keeley in "The Cured"

TIFF ’17 Review: A Zombie Thriller That’s Anything But Brain Dead in “The Cured”

Writer/director David Freyne isn’t the first to consider the possibilities of giving his zombies the ability to think in “The Cured,” but he is likely to have put more thought into eschewing the tradition than anyone else. In one of the most inspired premises for a film about the undead, Freyne sets up a world after a plague known as the Maze Virus has hit Ireland and even after 75% of the population has actually been cured, the only hitch being that the remaining 25% weren’t receptive to treatment and those that once were zombies have all their memories of their flesh-feasting days intact. The varied status of the populace between zombies (now well under the watchful eye of the military), those who once we’re zombies and reacclimate to normal life, and those that were never infected in the first place creates an ingenious atmosphere for a crackling thriller that is as invigorating for its social allegory as it is for its furious action.

Although one might expect zombies with memories to struggle with grief, “The Cured” opens up an even more provocative story in accompanying Senan (Sam Keeley) as he reenters society, dispatched to the care of his sister-in-law Abby (Ellen Page), who never contracted the virus, but lost her husband in the chaos. As if he was a parolee, Senan has an army sergeant check in on his status and has trouble getting work, ending up in the undesirable position of working at a zombie rehabilitation center where he’s confronted by what he once was on a daily basis. His memories aren’t so much sad, as he and others around him are generally accepting of the fact he had no control over who he was when he wasn’t himself, yet knowing what he was capable of instills a certain level of defeat, leading him to accept a second-class status in a society where those who didn’t have the bad luck to be infected feel a certain level of entitlement. Far less accepting of this paradigm is his friend Connor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who was once a barrister with political ambitions before he contracted Maze, and now finds that he has a righteous cause to lead a rebellion, when the government wants to carrying out a “humane elimination” of the vaccine-resistant zombies.

Senan’s work at the rehab center brings him into contact with a doctor (Paula Malcolmson) who is edging towards a scientific breakthrough, but whether or not it’ll happen in time before a full-blown revolution gives “The Cured” a ticking clock tension and even then, Freyne creates such a fraught social climate that there’s intrigue abound whether these various factions of society can co-exist, knowing how they’ve treated each other in the past. Although the film always plays bigger than it is, Freyne continually keeps the conflict on an intimate level by keeping his focus on Senan, Abigail and Connor’s whose differences with each other are articulated so intelligently and distinctly. In Connor’s case, it might be conveyed a little too strongly as an ominous hum accompanies his every move, which stands out for a film that operates so well in grey areas, but Keeley, Page and Vaughan-Lawlor all bring great gravitas that elevate the material above most genre fare while “The Cured,” as a whole, delivers the excitement that bloodthirsty fans expect.

For such a sophisticated thriller, the only thing that’s difficult to believe about “The Cured” is that it’s Freyne’s first feature, being as assured a debut as they come. Steadily creeping towards an action-packed climax, the filmmaker stages set-pieces with the same thorough sense of scope and ambition as he does in building a very relatable world for the characters to inhabit, with particular credit going to cinematographer Piers McGrail, whose shot selection often leaves a little to the imagination, and production designer Conor Dennison for creating environments which naturally suffered less devastation than the humans at the height of the epidemic yet have been completely drained of life. In considering all types of dehumanization, not only what happens if one is bitten by a zombie, the film packs as much punch intellectually as it does viscerally, asking who are the heroes and villains in a world where the social order is dictated by chance. As Connor says at one point about his former zombie brethren, “We’re not the only killers. We’re just the ones reminded of it,” opening up the kinds of questions that make “The Cured” truly unforgettable.

“The Cured” opens on February 23rd in New York at the IFC Center and on March 2nd in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge.

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