Judge Russell Engebretson is stockpiling ammunition and scoping out promising shopping malls just in case his dead relatives become zombies.
Why have the dead suddenly returned?
Mon dieu! France is overrun by zombies! But circumstances could be worse. Unlike their American cinematic brethren, French zombies are well-behaved and properly groomed, and retain their good complexions.
Facts of the Case
Seventy million "returnees"—all the people who died within the last decade—materialize worldwide and have to be reintegrated into society. Thirteen thousand of that number come shuffling into a small French city where they once lived. A small percentage of the returning dead are under 40 years of age, but the majority—75 percent—are 60 years plus.
As the city struggles to temporarily house and feed the returnees, the living must cope with how to reestablish their ties with the departed. Some refuse to rejoin their returned loved ones; others are eager to bring the departed back into their families. Rachel (Géraldine Pailhas) avoids her husband Mathieu (Jonathon Zaccaï). She is afraid to take him back due in part to a fight they had prior to his fatal car wreck. Isham (Djemal Barek), on the other hand, is overcome with joy to find his six-year-old son—so joyful that he refuses to acknowledge the boy's odd, detached behavior. All the characters wrestle with conflicting feelings of love and dread.
As time passes, however, they begin to question the returnees' strange behavior and inability to slip back into normal routines. It isn't long before the town's citizens realize that the undead are not quite the people they used to be. They only pretend to sleep, display no real affection, and gather into groups late at night in out-of-the way spots for clandestine discussions. It appears the zombies are plotting some nefarious deed. Will the townies get a clue and thwart the simple-minded zombies? Or will they hem and haw and fiddle about until the movie, at long last, putters to a standstill?
The French title for this movie is Les Revenants, and the returned dead are indeed more like wraiths than zombies. They seem dazed, weak-minded, and unable to reestablish ties with their friends and families. It's not a bad premise for a movie, despite the lack of an explanation for the return of the dead (even when George Romero reinvented the moribund zombie genre, he didn't bother to explain what reanimated the dead—something about a disintegrating radioactive satellite, or some such silliness). It isn't the movie's implausible premise that sinks it. It is the continued piling on of absurd, unexplained, and illogical occurrences that causes the story to founder and finally sink beneath an accumulation of nonsense. Unless the writer intentionally sets out to create an absurdist piece, a far-fetched story needs believable characters and rational, mundane events to anchor it in the real world. When the "plot twist" and resolution finally arrive, it's obvious that writer-director Robin Campillo had no idea where to take this movie.
Although They Came Back fails as a drama, it marginally succeeds as a social satire. Most of the satirical bits revolve around the question of how society treats its elderly population. There is much fretting by the authorities on how to handle the influx of an aged population that cannot be gainfully employed. The undead are given a drug to help them sleep, and later when they become unruly the same drug is used to gas them into a permanent coma. On a more general satiric note, the skies are filled with balloons mounted with infrared cameras to keep track of the undead (their body temperature is below normal, which allows them to be distinguished from the living), while cheerful newscasters assure the public that their privacy is not being compromised.
If the director had jettisoned the drama and concentrated on parody and satire, the movie might have worked as a black comedy. Instead, we end up with a lethargic, ponderous drama with zero internal logic that takes itself way too seriously. The real theme of the movie is how the bereaved deal with their grief, how they struggle to hold on to—and finally release—their departed husbands, wives, lovers, children, parents, and friends. Why present that theme within the context of a faux horror story? There is a surfeit of talent from the cinematographer, director, and actors: a straightforward drama, or maybe something along the lines of magical realism, would have sufficed. The actors certainly can't be faulted for the movie's deficiencies. They are uniformly excellent and a joy to watch as they try to come to grips with their grief, confusion, fear, and love. I wish the script had been worthy of the strong talent on display.
The DVD image is a bit soft, though it should not be too noticeable on small to medium-sized monitors. The film was shot (or processed) with a slight greenish-blue tint that gives the film a somewhat cool appearance—in keeping with the downbeat subject matter. It's a decent transfer, though no one will use it to show off their TV. The audio is clear and well-defined, with dialogue that sounds natural (I should mention, for all you subtitle haters, that audio is only in French). The main musical theme is a moody adagio string piece that weaves in and out of the scenes effectively without being intrusive.
Extras include filmographies of the three major actors and four trailers (Red Lights, Tarnation, In the Realms of the Unreal, and Milk and Honey). The only other DVD extra is the 21-minute making-of featurette. We get to hear comments from the cast and director and see how a few of the special effects were created. It's standard fare, but worth one view.
They Came Back is not scary enough to be a horror movie, and too dull to qualify as suspense. It lacks the barbed wit of a good satire, and is too self-serious to be a black comedy. All that remains is a tepid drama draped over a laughably incoherent script.
Wall it up and throw away the trowel.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• The Making of They Came Back
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