I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but still, it’s worth saying: zombies are hot right now. Have been for quite some time, actually. It’s hard to trace exactly where the big living dead resurgence started – some point to the release of the original Resident Evil video game, while others would attribute it to the cinematic one-two punch of Danny Boyle’s 2002 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Whatever the case, for the past decade-plus or so, zombies have been locked in mortal combat (or immortal combat, as it may be) with vampires for the title of horror’s top beastie. And it’s been a close fight, to be sure. Vampires certainly cornered the market on the teen-girl crowd with the hugely successful Twilight series (despite the best efforts of the surprisingly decent Warm Bodies to give zombies a little slice of that action, as well). But then zombies fired back with the hit AMC series The Walking Dead, which became a ratings juggernaut and cultural phenomenon the likes of which HBO’s popular True Blood could never really hope to match up to. This past summer, zombies may have just taken the lead with the shocking mega-success of the expected-to-fail Brad Pitt blockbuster, World War Z, which despite it’s PG-13 rating and total disregard for its own source material still managed to impress enough fans to become the highest grossing zombie movie in history.
So, yeah, zombies are having a moment; no doubt about that. And that’s great news for a guy like me…meaning, a total zombie nerd. Sure, I’m a pretty big horror fan in general, but ever since an ill-advised childhood viewing of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (which scared the hell out of me then, still scares me today, and remains my all-time favorite movie), the zombie movie has remained my most preferred horror sub-genre. I love the shambling bastards, and have spent an admittedly embarrassing amount of time and effort tracking down and watching just about every zombie flick I can possibly get my hands on. At this point, I’ve forgotten more zombie movies than most sane people have seen.
To be clear, though, I don’t necessarily say this as some kind of weird brag. Well, alright, maybe a little. But, truthfully, there’s also a part of me that knows it’s a pretty stupid hobby to have…especially considering the vast majority of these movies are garbage. Total, undeniable garbage. A lot of horror fans and aspiring filmmakers have made their own zombie movies…not a lot of them have bothered trying to make a good one.
A big part of the problem is just how annoyingly similar the bulk of these movies are. Romero’s original Dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) remain the high-water mark of the zombie movie, for their thrilling mixture of genuine thrills, gory action, and slyly subversive social commentary. But the resulting problem of those movies is that so many zombie filmmakers that have followed have just tried to do a paint-by-numbers copy of what Romero brought to the table…while usually forgetting about the “genuine thrills” and “social commentary” parts. So what we end up with is film after film of a group of people holed up in one location while a bunch of the director’s friends, in shitty zombie make-up, bang on the walls and doors from outside. Usually, they try to make up for their lack of any intelligence with frequent distracting sequences of hyper violence – zombie movies definitely give slasher films a run for their money in the “blood and guts” category.
And, yeah, often times I do love these unabashedly gory hi-jinks. But even I can sometimes grow a little tired of watching undead ghouls murder, maim, and devour the living. When you’ve seen as many zombie “feasts” as I have, it’s only natural to desire a little respite from the same old bloody antics every now and then. And when you’ve seen the same exact plot scenarios likewise played out ad naseum, you definitely find yourself hunting for the zombie movies that finally dare to bring something new to the table.
The good news is, those movies actually do exist, and are often worth the search. Case in point – They Came Back, a 2004 French “zombie-drama” from writer/director Robin Campillo (I should make clear that “zombie-drama” is my own designation for the film; I’m not sure Mr. Campillo would be all that thrilled with it). Avoiding the genre’s usual gore obsession, They Came Back (known as Les Revenants in its home country) instead opts for a more nuanced and contemplative approach to the subject of the living dead.
The movie starts with an incredibly striking visual: hundreds of recently deceased people, resurrected, now slowly walking in unison through city streets as the living residents look on in awe. It seems that, the world over, anyone who has died in the past 10 years has suddenly returned to the world of the living. These “zombies” are not out for mayhem, however. In fact, they seem just as confused about their return as the rest of the world, and want nothing more than to go back home and resume their lives. Since these people have committed no crime, and are technically still citizens, the nations’ governments have no choice but to set up special centers to take care of them and try to organize their re-introduction into the world, while at the same time trying to figure out what has caused this, and if the returnees pose any danger to society.
This concept could easily be played for broad laughs, or in a heavily satiric manner, but Campillo instead offers an incredibly realistic and well-thought-out look at how something like this might actually affect the world. Many of the returnees are welcomed back to joyous family reunions, but just as many are left abandoned at the government-run camps, shunned by family members who have already come to terms with their grief and are not eager to relive the memories by accepting the returnee back into their life. The film’s most emotionally devastating subplot regards a married couple who get back the young son they lost five years ago and have completely different reactions: the father is ecstatic to have his little boy back, but the mother can barely stand to look at the child, refusing to believe it’s the same boy she lost.
Even the returnees who do resume their old lives don’t exactly have an easy time of it, as many find the technological demands of their jobs have advanced beyond their knowledge during their time “away.” On top of that, they seem to be in a constant state of mental fogginess, with their reaction times being a little slower than usual. It doesn’t take long for the official investigators to wonder if this is just a side effect of their return, or if it shows that they are not exactly alive, per se, but rather imitating what they remember it was like to be alive (which would explain their slow reactions – they need to take time to remember what the proper response in any situation is).
Although we hear that this phenomenon is going on all over the world, the film takes place entirely in one town, and employs a clever narrative style of focusing on the interconnected lives of several government officials, almost all of whom are personally affected by the return of a loved one. The main focus is on Rachel (Geraldine Pailhas) and her returned husband, Mathieu (Jonathan Zaccai). Although she at first refuses to see Mathieu, Rachel eventually accepts his return after he follows her home one day, and the two slowly rekindle their relationship. But as happy as she eventually is to have him back in her life, Rachel can’t help but notice that something about Mathieu seems “off,” a concern only amplified when she discovers that every night he sneaks off to meet in private with other returnees. And, in fact, these kind of secret meetings are happening all over the city. But what are the returnees discussing at the meetings? Are they planning something? And, if so, what?
As the mystery unfolds, some viewers may be put off by the leisurely pace of the storytelling. This is a movie that takes its sweet time building up to its climax. But for those who get into the story, They Came Back is never boring. Instead, the deliberate pace allows the characters’ stories the time they deserve, and adds to the haunting feel of the film (the film has its share of scary and unsettling moments, even without ever resorting to the genre’s typical scare tactics). If there is a valid complaint against Campillo’s film, it’s that sometimes it’s a little too ambiguous for its own good. One of the most intriguing story elements is a strange, unspoken bong between the young boy returnee and another, older returnee. Unfortunately, the relationship is never explained, and we never even learn the other returnee’s identity. Even the climax will most likely upset some, as it doesn’t exactly answer any of the film’s questions, nor clear up any mysteries. Of course, They Came Back is somewhat of an art film, so this kind of ending will also allow a certain kind of audience member to gleefully stick their nose in their air and insist the detractors “just don’t get it.” I don’t know…maybe that’s true. Maybe after years of watching crappy zombie movies, which admittedly don’t exactly require a lot of thought, I’ve grown accustomed to having things spelled out for me. But, still, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for that the conclusion of They Came Back be just a little less vague. Go ahead, call me uncultured.
There were also times I wished Campillo had gone even further in examining the implications of something like this happening; for instance, we never once see any of the living characters wonder what will happen to them when they die now, or – in fact – if death even still exists anymore. That seems like a pretty valid thing to wonder about in this situation, don’t you think?
But, overall, Campillo must be given credit for treating the material with such respect, and crafting a story that actually does seem somewhat realistic and plausible (at least in terms of the characters reactions), despite its fantastic nature. Even with its sometimes frustratingly unclear nature,They Came Back is still a highly-original take on an old genre, both creepy and thought-provoking. No, it’s not exactly the kind of zombie movie that is going to share the same sort of mainstream excitement that World War Z or The Walking Dead enjoy, but it should definitely be a “must-see” for dedicated zombie fans looking for something a little different.