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Reviews 31 Days of Horror X

They Came Back

They Came Back

Les Revenants / The Returned

Robin Campillo

France, 2004

Credits

Review by Steve Macfarlane

Posted on 23 October 2013

Source Haut et Court DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror X

Robin Campillo’s 2004 zombie-drama They Came Back explores many of the same themes as a signal earlier “revisionist” take on the living dead, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later—but without spilling a single drop of blood. Campillo opens with panoramic shots of dazed-looking zombies (many of them elderly, smartly attired in khakis and leisurewear they couldn’t possibly have been buried in), inoffensively parading down entire streets. The worldwide zombie population is estimated at 70 million, but They Came Back focuses solely on a small French town in the summertime, with an influx of 13,000. As the state apportions the fluorescent auditoriums of community centers for zombies to be treated/analyzed/reintroduced to their families again, Campillo’s screenplay (co-written with Brigitte Tijou) shifts between meditative and governmental considerations of a quieter, more ambiguous zombie uprising.

Yes, the dead have returned, but all they really want back is their old roles in society—a request the authorities can’t possibly deny. (Consider this big-hearted response in contrast to any non-zombie, real-life refugee crisis along similar numbers and you’ll get a hint of the philosophical terrain Campillo wanted to map out.) Slowly expanding from within the city government, the narrative sees a handful of adult characters struggling to make sense of the return. The mayor attempts getting back together with his elderly wife; a young widow eventually succumbs to her zombie husband (who quickly resumes his place in an architecture firm); a big-hearted bureaucrat works desperately to pick up where he left off with his young son – dead for four years – despite his wife’s creeping skepticism. (Soon he is seen sleeping on the couch, while the little one stares blankly at his bitterly conflicted parents.) The film does not shy from the paradoxes inherent to the situation; one of many is the impulse to refuse seeing a deceased loved one again, even if your heart has wanted the opposite for years.

The zombies – diagnosed with a kind of widespread aphasia, akin to a serious whack on the head – speak or emote as little as possible, and their severed sense of self the script gives them hinges entirely on the cast. On this score the film is impeccable. Putting a lot of faith into a patently ludicrous scenario, Campillo (who, tellingly, cowrote Time Out and The Class) and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie don’t skimp on the players’ faces, hopscotching around town in a way not unlike Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments Of A Chronology of Chance. This keeps the main predicament working for nearly two hours: where do you draw the line between live and undead emotion? The widespread fear of a freakout is what keeps Campillo’s revenants unnerving, but where Boyle (or Romero before him) spun drama from the risk of a human “turning” at any second, They Came Back elegantly renders the cruel, punishing inner defeat of watching a loved one fail to turn back.

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