They Came Back

This bloodless zombie movie from France winds up saying more about the human condition than anyone might have expected of a film full of the walking dead.  By throwing out genre conventions and focusing on the human story, this quiet character film turns out to be creepier and more anxiety-inducing than almost any film with a proper gut-chewing scene.

Intelligent Science Fiction seems to be enjoying something of a small renaissance of late after years of being relegated to bombasitc space opera and alien war hell. Last year's micro-budget indie Primer was a much-needed Sci Fi headfuck that relied on concepts rather than special effects, while Danny Boyle's upcoming trip to the sun in Sunshine and Darren Aronofsky's time-skipping fantasy The Fountain both look promising. They Came Back, a French film originally called Les Revenants is another entry into that realm of genre films that are more interesting than loud, and more adventurous than formulaic.

The basic set up sounds like the stuff of countless entries into the zombie movie bin: people come back from the dead and amble slowly along the streets causing terror and confusion and the threat of mayhem. Only it's clear from the first few frames of They Came Back that this is a zombie film unlike any other. The zombies are all clean, perfectly preserved from their recent departures from the living, and they don't seem too keen on eating brains. In fact, more than terrifying or threatening, they just seem confused and a little alienated at the idea that they've returned to the world that they thought they had left behind. Even more confused are the loved ones and relatives who are in many cases still dealing with the grief of loss only to have their lovers, parents, and children returned inexplicably.

The film focuses on the families of a trio of returnees who re-enter their lives and try to re-assimilate into a society that has learned to get by without them. An elderly matriarch returns to her family, a husband returns to his conflicted wife, and a young boy returns to his parents who are anxious to have a second chance with a child who was taken too soon. Of course all is not well with the returnees, and the film's drama extends from the tension that the zombies stir up, despite the fact that they don't seem hell bent on murdering the living. It's a slow burn of a film, one that deliberatly glides along at a zombie pace.

It never aims to directly terrify, but it does an amazing job of sewing the seeds of a creeping dread. Even when life appears to be moving along and getting back to normal, every character is struggling to understand what is happening and desperately trying to reconcile the feelings that their undead loved ones have brought to the surface. Ultimately, the film is less about the shock and horror of monsters returning from the grave and more about our ability to cope with death, the mourning process, and the grieving we all go through when we experience a loss.

It's an amazing arc.  The film's meditative pace allows the viewer to ask the questions that lie behind the eyes of the film's living characters. What if I could have Grandma back for a day? What would I say to her? What if we could take back the last hurtful things we said to each other? How would things be different if we were given a second chance, and eventually, what will we do when that chance doesn't turn out to be as real as it seems?

They Came Back is a brilliant twist on the zombie formula, and one that wrings all of the dramatic promise from that premise without copious gore and nihilism. It's a film that proves once again that genre filmmaking isn't necessarily tethered to the conventions of style over substance. We need more thoughtful Science Fiction and Horror and less mindless explosions and splatter, and They Came Back is a fantastic example of that.