‘We zombies should help each other.’
In the years following the theatrical release of 28 Days Later the zombie sub-genre has undergone something of a commercial resurgence. In addition to several highly successful gaming franchises, multiple graphic novels, and a thriving literary scene, the number of films and television series competing for marketplace supremacy and viewer loyalty has increased substantially and at present the dominant televisual brand is the HBO produced series The Walking Dead. Into this very crowded and ever more inventive movement French pay-to-view broadcaster Canal+ has launched a new series based on a 2004 film that was released internationally as They Came Back.
Adaptations of films can be a tricky business. For every Buffy the Vampire Slayer or M*A*S*H viewers are hit with several shows that lack the very ingredients which made the original film so enjoyable. Although promoted as a remake Les Revenants is a re-imagining of the 2004 film. In the original version a global phenomena occurred one morning as every single person who had died over the previous ten years was suddenly resurrected. The opening sequences saw hoards of stiff moving zombies march out of the graveyards which had a few moments earlier been home to their corpses. With a massive influx of reanimated corpses needing housing, and employment, the government establishes temporary refuge centres whilst it tries to reach a consensus on the socio-cultural implications posed by having to provide resources for seventy million people. At various points in the film we are presented with information that informs us of ways the zombies differ from humans; they exhibit symptoms similar to acute aphasia, have a lower body temperature, do not require sleep and need minimal amounts of food . The debate on if it is possible to integrate what is effectively a large migrant community is a central theme to the film but one that becomes somewhat muddied by the need to resolve the plot in under two hours and by localising the action; despite being a global event we only experience it from a French perspective.
The 2012 eight part series, scripted by Fabrice Gobert, relocates the action to a small French Alpine town. In this version a very small number of deceased individuals have returned, none of whom are, at first, aware that they are dead. With the exception of an inability to sleep not one of the returnees initially displays any obvious physiological and psychological abnormalities but in later episodes they experience enlarged appetites, a resistance to alcohol’s intoxicating effects and a very high sex drive. The cause of death is the only information missing from the returnees memories and in the introductory moments returning to a community many years after being buried in the grounds of the local cemetery causes no disorientation or depression. In the film version it was only those who had died within the previous ten years that returned to walk once again amongst the living whilst in the series returnees are indiscriminately plucked from a thirty five year time frame. The resurrected have no direct connection and what links them is a mystery. Amongst the re-animated corpses are the wife of a school teacher, a child who was murdered by a pair of house burglars, a cannibalistic serial killer, a girl who was killed in a coach accident, and a young man who died on the morning of what should have been his wedding day. Each wants nothing more than to return to their loved ones and resume the life they once lived but encountering family members who have already undergone the grieving process opens emotional scars strong enough to drive one person to murder and suicide.
Once the wider community becomes aware that those to whom they had bid farewell many years ago are now living again in the town the sense of disbelief is rapidly replaced by anger at person X being revived but not person Y. Competing theological perspectives of the phenomena are presented by the local Catholic parish priest and a worker at a local community organization, both individuals are fighting to maintain their ideological supremacy and justify the belief system to which they subscribe. As the town becomes embroiled in psychological and spiritual mutilation the local police force has a wave of procedural problems for which there is no precedent such as how to go about booking a suspect that has been officially recorded as dead for the last decade.
A visual motif of water as a source of life and death plays in the title sequence and the main body of each episode. The town is situated near to a vast dam and at one point in the last forty years its banks have burst, killing many of the local inhabitants. That the local abundant water supply may somehow factor into whatever has caused the spate of resurrections is thankfully not resolved for the series ends with a visually stunning and emotionally engaging cliffhanger.
Les Revenants is a series you will watch again and again in order to pick up any clues about what or who has the power to revive the dead, why have they chosen to only revive these specific individuals, do the dead have a part to play of which they are, as yet unaware? It’s a very confident and consistent series that doesn’t fall into the obvious trap of filling screen time with mass hysteria each time a character meets someone who is supposed to be dead. The direction is reminiscent of David Lynch’s work on Twin Peaks and if that wasn’t enough of a reason to lobby for a UK release it also has a soundtrack from Scottish band Mogwai that is, at differing moments, elegiac, restrained, and reassuring.
A second season will air in 2014.
A trailer can be viewed here:
The Returned can be pre-ordered from Amazon;
Mogwai’s soundtrack is available to buy from iTunes and all other online music retailers;
Arrow Films will be releasing the 2004 film Les Revenants (They Came Back) on DVD in July:
Channel 4 will be screening this series throughout the summer months.