Andrew Eaton-Lewis: the evolution of zombie films

The Returns is evidence of how Zombie films have changed
The Returns is evidence of how Zombie films have changed
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IS THE Returned a zombie drama? Not really. If anything, the Channel 4 series – about a town in the French Alps where people keep coming back from the dead – feels like a ghost story.

One character, a widow whose dead husband shows up just as she’s preparing to remarry, even copes for a while by treating him like a ghost. And yet, despite its complete absence of groaning, shuffling, blood and cannibalism (well, apart from the serial killer, but he was doing that the first time he was alive), The Returned is routinely described in the media as a zombie drama.

This is how mainstream zombies have now become. They’ve diversified from horror into romantic comedies (Zombieland, Warm Bodies), a family-friendly Brad Pitt thriller (World 
War Z) and adverts for cars (Honda) and mobile phone networks (Giffgaff). Now they’re even taking the credit for a TV series that owes virtually nothing to the genre. Sure, there’s the occasional in-joke – the returned are always hungry, for example – but The Returned’s lack of resemblance to most zombie dramas goes beyond the lack of blood. The political satire, the fear of the mob, the breakdown of society – all this is absent too.

I blame Shaun Of The Dead – or rather 2004’s double whammy of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s ‘zomromcom’ and Zack Snyder’s remake of the George Romero classic Dawn Of The Dead. This was the year in which zombies ceased to be a cult concern and began to become a ubiquitous cultural trope. Coincidentally, 2004 also saw the release of Les Revenants, the film on which The Returned is based. That wasn’t a zombie drama either, although its striking opening scene (hundreds of grey-haired, blank-faced people walking out of a cemetery) at least partly resembles a scene from a zombie film, in the way it manages to make a large, slow-moving crowd terrifying.

Still, it seems oddly appropriate that Les Revenants should be reanimated just as Pegg and Wright are back with The World’s End, a homage to Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. The Returned does have a Bodysnatchers-like vibe to it. Its revived dead look like us and talk like us, but there’s something not quite right about them, and – five episodes in – a feeling that they cannot be trusted.

I’ve become a little bit obsessed by The Returned in recent weeks, by its glacial pacing, prolonged mysteries (what the hell is going on at the reservoir?), Mogwai’s wonderful music, and its arresting images – a pinned butterfly fluttering back to life, a mute, intense child straight out of The Omen, and, most recently, animal corpses suspended underwater and a character dressed as Catwoman with her belly half torn open. It seems unfairly reductive to describe it as a zombie drama. The Returned has echoes of Twin Peaks, The Shining, Donnie Darko, and Village Of The Damned. Parts of it also remind me of Red Road, Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film about an obsessive, lonely Glasgow CCTV operator, and, particularly in its most recent episode, the Polish brothers 2003 film Northfork, about a Montana town being evacuated to make way for a new reservoir.

The Returned has its flaws. Some characters’ decisions feel a little too much like convenient ways of putting off providing answers. Simon, the dead husband, seems a little too content to act like a ghost, while Victor, the mute boy, suddenly ceases to be mute when other plot developments demand it. But I’m happy to hear that a second season is due in 2014. The question is, what country full of mountains, reservoirs, remote towns and evocative folklore would be the perfect setting for an English language remake? The Returned’s soundtrack may provide a clue.