A disappointing watch for anyone who’s got too caught up in the word zombie, Robin Campillo’s 2004 film They Came Back (The Returned) is a haunting original tale of undead awakening. Now a major series under the original French title, They Came Back has obviously addressed a void in the zombie market and caught people’s imaginations, Campillo’s eye for political commentary is as sharp as Romero’s but undoubtedly less entertaining to watch. Here you will find no flesh eating denizens of grave, no Savini, Berger/Nicotero effects: this is a film startling in its total lack of similarity to any other feature of the genre. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You can see why it arguably works better in serial format; thousands of the recently deceased return to life and are registered, accounted for, then let back to their families, jobs, etc. Campillo’s focus here is less inclined towards the chaotic Armageddon factor and more towards the quiet sombre realization of what is happening, his script picks its way through a realistic portrayal of the bureaucracy involved, the systems of testing, the reactions of loved ones, and ultimately the effects these have on a small French town. A series would be better equipped to explore the effects on individual people and to build a bigger sense of the event; Campillo’s feature unfortunately lacks focus and scale. We don’t follow a single character well enough to feel pulled into the moment, and there’s no attempt to show the global implications of the incident.
It takes a while for anyone to ask the questions that seem to jump to mind first, but even when the opportunity pops up, it comes from a child who is quickly brushed aside. It is in this manner Campillo deals with most of the important events of They Came Back, quickly serving moments of intrigue then whisking them off with no further development, leaving the viewer to put the message together in their own good time. Perhaps the film, and its creator, are to be lauded for a fearless disregard of the anticipated reactions: the how’s, why’s, and what’s.
The dream-like quality of the film, the slow heartfelt, dizzy feel of the look and pace, evolve not just through the docile meanderings of the dead, but by that very elusive manner of story-telling you could easily get frustrated with. No matter how you feel, it’s the perfect aesthetic for a zombie film sans gruesome flesh-eating.
By no means a zombie film in the traditional manner, They Came Back a far more emotional rendering of that tired old trope, an intriguing look at the reality behind an event such as this. However, it is difficult to enjoy a film so laconic in its method, so dull and heart-wrenching, that- at its core- it is intrinsically boring.
Dir: Robin Campillo
Stars: Geraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccai, Frederic Pierrot