Almost a year after George A. Romero’s passing, the zombie flick shows no signs of shuffling off its mortal coil. The Walking Dead, Train to Busan, Santa Clarita Diet: the undead are everywhere you look on-screen right now, a fact the late horror maestro chalked up to the fact they’re a lot like us. “They were human at one time,” he said. “So we are confronted with ourselves in a way, which is much more frightening and disturbing.”
Zombies were never more human than in The Cured, David Freyne’s Dublin-set horror-drama in which recovering zombies are reintegrated into a society that is, understandably, reluctant to forgive them their brain-eating trespasses. With a bleak allegorical tone that’s less Dawn of the Dead and more The Handmaid’s Tale, Freyne’s film is haunted by political traumas both past and present, from the troubles to the ongoing immigrant crisis and the rise of populist figures like Donald Trump.
The drama centres on Senan (Sam Keeley), a young man who comes to stay with his sister-in-law, Abbie (Ellen Page), and her young son after he is cured of the zombie virus. Senan feels a burning sense of shame at his past, but is consoled by a friend from the rehabilitation centre, Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who argues that the former zombie community need to stick together in the face of hostility from the public.
“When I read it I straight-up loved David’s script,” says Page, a confirmed zombie fan who has cited 28 Days Later as a particular favourite. “I thought it was a new take on the genre; I was compelled and moved.” Abbie, a journalist whose husband was killed in the zombie outbreak, provides the film with its quiet moral core, holding it together for the sake of her son even as her world is falling apart.
“I was really just focusing on everything Abbie had been through,” says Page of her preparation for the role. “That last few years living outside of the city raising a son by herself and trying to create a sense of normalcy again, without even remotely feeling anything that she needs to feel.” Senan’s arrival on the scene threatens that sense of normalcy, but Abbie welcomes him into her home, encouraging him to bond with her son, Cillian, played by Oscar Nolan. But Senan’s allegiances are tested when Conor reveals a darker side to his ambitions.
The film saw Page play a mum for the first time since Juno, a challenge she rose to with the help of a little bribery: “At the beginning in preproduction I took (Oscar) to the arcade and bowling so he would think I was cool. And it seemed to work! He’s a soccer player, too, so we played that together. He was just so good and natural, he was a really great scene partner! It made me approach the character in a whole new way. He was always making fun of me and stuff, but it was OK.”
Page began shooting on The Cured in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election in the US – “it was just like, ‘Oh my God… It was the worst thing but, you know, let’s not go there” – and the dark events depicted in the film seemed to mirror the gathering political stormclouds off set. “There are things [in the film] that are very much reflected now in the political climate,” says Page. “The use of fear to establish power for yourself is definitely a big part of it. [Conor] is an example of someone who is bottling up all his anger and fear to gain power for himself, essentially. It’s a tactic that’s always been used, but especially right now.”
Some of the film’s most intriguing moments come when it’s dealing with the subject of shame, and how that is internalised by the former zombie-folk after their rehabilitation. Senan looks wretched when he is taunted by a rehabilitation officer at the start of the film: “Did you have to be potty-trained again?” And Conor, though ostensibly the villain of the piece, gets one of the best lines when he talks about the taboo of giving in to zombie impulses: “They don’t tell you about the moment you give in.” After all, why shouldn’t a zombie be true to its own nature, too?
Shame and social stigma are topics Page covered extensively in Gaycation, the documentary series for Vice which saw her travel the world with pal Ian Daniel to learn about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Premiering in 2016, just two years after the actress came out as gay at a Human Rights Campaign conference in Las Vegas, the show was a must-watch for Page and Daniel’s intrepid reporting and cemented her status as an icon of gay activism.
“Yeah. I mean, shame is… a bummer,” says Page, when pressed on the subject today. “To put it very articulately! That’s a feeling that comes from growing up in a society that says certain people aren’t valid or don’t have the same rights or what have you. And that’s very detrimental in people’s lives, and forces them to not be truthful about who they are or feel like they can’t without being attacked. I could talk a long time about that, you know!”
Page says she has been stopped by people on the street thanking her for the show, but is quick to credit its success to “all these people around the world who risked a lot to tell their story”. That grounded attitude was in evidence late last year, when she wrote a lengthy Facebook post detailing homophobic abuse she encountered on the set of X-Men: The Last Stand from director Brett Ratner when she was just 18. Writing eloquently of the damage caused by Ratner’s abuse, she stopped to acknowledge how the “epidemic of violence against women in our society disproportionately affects low income women, particularly women of colour, trans and queer women and indigenous women”.
Page’s roles to date have been similarly progressive in outlook, with male abuses of power a recurring theme in films such as Hard Candy, Into the Forest, Juno and Mouth to Mouth, about a cult in thrall to an abusive male leader. (Page did, however, express regret at working with Woody Allen – on 2010’s To Rome With Love – in her open letter on Facebook from last year.) Hard Candy, in particular, stands out for its unflinching portrayal of a 14-year-old girl turning the tables on her online stalker. “I do think it’s interesting some of the films that have come along for me,” says Page, whose next film in the US was to be X-Men. “I was, like, 17 when I made Hard Candy. I look back on it now and I’m like, ‘Damn!’”
The Cured is out in UK cinemas from today.