Channel 4’s early days were characterised by innovation. Established with a remit to cater for minority audiences, the station frequently pushed the envelope and broadcast trailblazing programming. Content that would not have been screened by the BBC or ITV found a ready made home in this fledgling station’s schedules. Before Channel 4’s launch transmissions of foreign language TV drama used either dubbed prints (The Flashing Blade, Monkey, The Water Margin) or retained the original dialogue track but buried it deep within the mix and slapped an English language narrator at the front of the sound design (The Singing Ringing Tree). The funding model which Channel 4 adhered to in its formative years ensured that it did not need to worry about a collapse in advertising revenue as any shortfall would be met by the ITV network. In short, this meant that Channel 4 could screen whatever it wanted, provided the programme met broadcasting guidelines, and not be concerned about alienating potential advertisers. Emboldened by the financial safety net offered by ITV Channel 4 decided to screen subtitled TV drama . As part of this experiment British viewers were treated to The Black Forest Clinic and Châteauvallon. What should have been a brave new era in broadcasting proved to be a false dawn as Channel 4 swiftly dumped subtitled TV drama from its schedules and twenty years would pass before the station decided to once again start showing series from mainland Europe. What made Channel 4 realise that European shows could attract and maintain an audience? Two words: The Returned.
Within a matter of weeks The Returned has become a cult hit. Critical praise has been accompanied by an expressions of adoration and engagement by fans who trawl through Twitter and assorted forums praising the Lynchian direction, Mogwai’s soundtrack whilst trying to figure out the connection between the returnees, how they might have been revived, and what directions the show might take in future seasons. Amongst all the praise and positive column inches that has flowed in Channel 4’s direction since the show aired the fact that it is a re-imagining of a 2004 feature film has been overlooked.
Directed by Robin Campillo, The Returned was originally released in English language territories as They Came Back. An atmospheric and highly cerebral take on the zombie genre it may have been unjustly ignored in the immediate post 28 Days Later era. Danny Boyle’s film updated familiar tropes and presented them in a movie that celebrated contemporary London and payed homage to several BBC shows including Survivors and its 1981 adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. The success, particularly in America, of Boyle;s movie may have been in part because of an audience wanting to see zombies act in a manner that was consistent with other films in this genre. Campillo’s take on the undead may have been too radical for the time and perhaps it is only now that the audience exists for such an innovative approach.
Releasing the film on DVD a few days before Channel 4 airs the season finale is a canny bit of marketing guaranteed to pay dividends for Arrow Films but this has caused some confusion amongst fans who are worried that watching the film might spoil the season finale or think that the movie might contain all important clues which will help them unlock the TV version’s puzzle.
On TV the action is confined to a French Alpine town whereas in Campillo’s version the world wakes up one morning to find that every single person to have died over the previous ten years has returned to life. With no explanation for what has caused this phenomena the audience joins the characters in an initial state of bewilderment accompanied by awe. The sheer scale of this inexplicable development is deftly communicated in an opening sequence which shows masses of previously dead people leaving a cemetery in search of their old lives and loved ones.
Facing potential social and economic meltdown due to millions of returnees needing immediate access to food and shelter the government sets up emergency refuge centres within municipal buildings whilst it tries to comprehend what has occurred and legislate for any potential outcomes.
Effectively forced to walk a very fine tightrope the government has to treat the resurrected with dignity and compassion all the time aware of the potential emotional confusion being experienced by relatives.
The returnees may look like us but as the film unfolds we learn that they differ in many subtle ways. Exhibiting symptoms similar to acute aphasia the resurrected are unsuited for any tasks requiring original creative thought. No longer able to perform their pre death jobs they are put to work in repetitive and unskilled posts by a society that is growing ever more suspicious.
Requiring no sleep the reanimated travel great distances by foot each night to congregate with fellow animated cadavers. Psychologists, medical professionals, and governmental representatives are at a loss to explain this ritual and are unsure if it is somehow connected with the resurrection process or perhaps has a more sinister purpose.
A radical reinvention of the zombie film, possibly too forward thinking in its approach for the story to be satisfactorily told by a single movie. The final act lacks coherence but that may be an editorial choice. With no clear cut answer as to what brought about the resurrections and whatever it is that the returnees are planning the potential for interpretations is virtually unlimited.
We are aware that incidents of resurrection have happened across the globe but by focusing exclusively on the French experience we are unsure if the narrative is incomplete; or if Robin Campillo is making a statement about the potential erosion of French culture.
The Returned is thoughtful, subtle, atmospheric and unnerving It deliberately avoids clichés and that may be why the film is not better known within the UK. Fans of the TV show will find this film to be very different to what they may have been expecting. Different in terms of tone, characters, and overall storyline and yet this is a movie that aficionados should watch if only to see what inspired Fabrice Gibert’s masterful re-imagining.
The Returned can be ordered from Amazon: