Monday, December 8, 2008


The French aren’t always associated with horror films, if anything they come up when thrillers and/or fantasy is mentioned. Scholars look to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) when they think of France’s contributions to the genres; neither is overly horrific. Jean Rollin, director of Zombie Lake and Living Dead Girl, was born in Paris, but his films were no more an indication of French horror than Jesus Franco’s were of Spanish horror; everybody knows they really made Italian horror films, no matter what language they’re speaking beneath that dub track. The reason France isn’t always the first title to come up where horror is concerned is because typically their horror films are a lot less…well, horrible than most other countries. Let’s look at their lesser known and much more expertly done foray into the zombie film (not that Rollin’s films were much competition where subtlety and craft is concerned).

They Came Back or Les Revenants
by Robin Campillo
The zombies are up and walking around right out of the gate, but they aren’t after our brains or our guts, at least they sure don’t seem to be. In the film’s first scene we’re alerted to the sort of movie we’ve just tucked into; hundreds of neutrally dressed, non-decomposed, very much alive dead people walk out of the cemetery and down a French street. Authorities are perplexed and house them in large warehouses where they’re examined, identified, and returned to their homes. Those whose loved ones are no longer there to retrieve them, or who, like Rachel, a government employee who works in one of the warehouses, cannot bring themselves to look death in the face, do not come to pick them up. Rachel’s husband Mathieu remains in one of the government’s impromptu YZCAs while she contemplates just what this all means. Isham and Véronique, a couple who recently lost their boy are overcome with…well, a lot of things when they come to pick Sylvain up from purgatory and take him back home. The mayor, who never gets a first name, is so happy he nearly dies himself when he sees his wife, Martha come home. There are a number of other fringe stories, but these three comprise the majority of our narrative, so let’s stick with them.

The dead are incapable of creating much new memories and cannot be called upon to do much other than push shopping carts and so their refolding into society is about as effective as the many stages of grief. Rachel, the most skeptical of all the recently unbereaved, finally consents to letting her husband come home. They share a house again and then the marriage bed before long. Despite trips to the beach, she cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong. That something may have to do with the fact that the dead have been gathering at night, you see, and to all observers, it appears like they’re planning something, but what? The Mayor takes his wife's nocturnal antics the hardest and ultimately suffers for it in worse ways than any of the others. Sylvain brings as much grief as he does joy to his parents, and the final straw comes one night when they hear him scratching at the door like a dog begging to be let out. With the greiving thoroughly suspicious of their undead loved ones, everyone has to step back and ask: what can a group of functionally useless if unnaturally beautiful corpses hope to accomplish in great numbers if gut-munching isn’t on their mind?

They Came Back was one of the first films I watched when I was planning the curriculum for Honors Zombie and it’s long been a favorite of mine, an unsung classic of minimalist terror. Robin Campillo didn’t have a lot of gore in mind when he entered the zombie discourse and I cannot commend him enough for his entry. Campillo is a master of honest portrayals of people who stand in for universal problems and themes; his script for the Palme D'Or winning film The Class is a testament to that. An endlessly quiet, haunting look at loss, Campillo effortlessly explains why it’s best that the dead stay dead and why dwelling in the past can bring nothing but bad fortune and misery. Best of all, he does so with the stillness of a funeral and the tension of a hospital waiting room.

Everyone’s performance is wonderful; Djemel Barek, Marie Matheron, and Saady Delas as Isham, Véronique, and Sylvain respectively make a tremendous showing of themselves as a family turned on its head. Jonathan Zaccaï as Mathieu is especially great. His zombie is the one we always expect to try something, ominous and attractive, constantly forcing Rachel’s worldview upside down. His scene at the beach, taking in all the sights, you expect him, like a dog not properly reformed, to snap and bite someone’s hand. Campillo and fellow writer Brigitte Tijou amp up the tension and weirdness and just as we, like the characters, think that things will either go back to normal or end in bloodshed, something else wholly unique, unexpected, and yet undeniably reasonable takes place. In a movie about loss taking on a human form, the ending they’ve chosen is really the only one that makes sense; even though they’ve suggested a dozen other eerie things in the meantime. That’s where the film’s greatest success lies, in the things it makes you think. It’s one thing for a film to lock a man and a monster in a closet and make you guess what happens, it’s another to make the monster a man whose only defining characteristic is his quiet refusal to do what you think he’s supposed to. That’s why They Came Back works so well as a zombie film for zombie fans because we have two expectations that are simultaneously torn asunder. First we have people not acting like people, and then we have zombies not acting like zombies, in some pretty troubling and fundamental ways. Seeing They Came Back after weeks straight of films like Burial Grounds and Zombi Holocaust was what I imagine it must have been like for the teenager who first encountered Joy Division in 1979 after a decade of Led Zeppelin and Sex Pistols. Truly a great film; almost nothing happens, per se, but so much more comes across than in most of its predecessors. They Came Back is a zombie film that will stand the test of time.

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