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THEY CAME BACK

A triumph of “quiet horror,” this subdued French scare fest is one of the most effective zombie films of recent years.  True, not a whole lot actually happens herein, but the film’s subtle creepiness makes for a one-of-a-kind experience in disquiet. 

The Package
     THEY CAME BACK (LES REVENANTS; 2004), the directorial debut of Robin Campillo (best known previous to this film for co-scripting the international sensation TIME OUT), eschews the flesh eating and intestine pulling of traditional living dead flicks in favor of a more surreal, even satirical approach.  Thus the film is closer in tone to Abel Gance’s classic J’ACCUSE! or Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS than THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its innumerable offspring. 
     THEY CAME BACK was a fairly big budgeted affair featuring several top-flight French actors (including Geraldine Pailhas, from 5x2 and THE ADVERSARY, and Jonathan Zaccai, of THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED), and met with some success on the film festival circuit.  Of course, I’m sure that will mean little to most stateside horror buffs, who don’t like any variation in their zombie movies; there were numerous complaints on horror internet boards, after all, about the “evolved” zombies of George Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD and Joe Dante’s MASTERS OF HORROR segment (from an Ain’t-it-Cool-News talkback: “I care not about politics in horror, just give me some sick gore!”), so I can only imagine what those complainers would make of the walking dead in this film.

The Story 
     One morning, in a small French town, the dead begin to rise: seemingly without reason, zombies flood the area in search of their loved ones.  Officials hastily set up a dormitory to detain and house the dead folks, many of whom are met by family members who take their deceased relatives back to their homes.  As the days stretch on many of the deaders are reintegrated into their old lives and even rejoin the work force.  However, it’s clear from the start these zombies aren’t exactly their old selves: they don’t speak much and have a tendency to stare into space.  More ominously, they spend their nights taking lengthy walks and set up a meeting area from which the living are excluded.  Thermal cameras mounted on balloons are loosed so authorities can differentiate the dead from the living (through such cameras dead people emit a uniformly grey tone while live ones are more brightly colored) and keep an eye on the zombies’ activities.
     In the meantime Rachel, a grief-stricken young woman, is dealing with Mathieu, her deceased beau, who like all the other dead people in town has come back to life.  He moves back into their apartment, but things are immediately different between the two.  Mathieu is now a dour zombie, for one thing, and his suicide is an obstacle he and Rachel never had to deal with before.  Not to mention the fact that he goes for long walks each night and meets with his fellow deaders, who are clearly up to no good... 

The Direction 
     Robin Campillo took a big chance in ignoring standard scary movie iconography in his directorial debut.  Sometimes that makes for interesting films, but it can just as often result in a self indulgent muddle (try sitting through the French pretension-fest SOMBRE, an “avant-garde” serial killer flick that literally put me to sleep).  Thankfully, THEY CAME BACK definitely falls into the former category: it’s subtle, intriguing and has much real-world significance, but is still very much a HORROR MOVIE with all the trimmings (an aspect many mainstream critics have naturally played down in reviewing the film).
     Certainly one can read any number of meanings into the film both personal and political--the zombies as metaphors for the lingering effects of grief, or as representations of the way society treats its second class citizens--but I think it works best as a straightforward exercise in otherworldly apprehension.  (And anyway, George Romero has all-but cornered the market in socially conscious zombie films!)  Much of the film’s power comes from the creepiness of its atmosphere, the sheer wrongness of people who should be worm food walking upright and rubbing shoulders with the living.  The effect is enhanced by unshowy direction and eerie, disquieting music by Martin Wheeler.  For those willing to give themselves over to the film’s unique rhythms, it’s an unforgettable experience.


Vital Statistics 

THEY CAME BACK (LES REVENANTS)
Haut and Court 

Director: Robin Campillo
Producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo
Screenplay: Robin Campillo, Brigitte Tijou
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Editing: Robin Campillo
Cast: Geraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccai, Frederic Pierrot, Catherine Samie, Victor Garrivier, Djemel Barek, Marie Matheron, Saady Delas
 


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