When is a zombie not a zombie? Do you have to be a full-fledged skull-munching, low-moaning, slow-walker to qualify? Or is being “undead” more of a philosophical problem, one that’s less about the flesh than it is about the braaain?
My coworkers and I have been debating this lately, because many of us are addicted to the French drama The Returned, one of the coolest, creepiest new shows on TV. (It premieres Halloween night on Sundance. Watch it now so you’re up to speed when Carlton Cuse of Lost adapts it for American television.) It’s nothing like The Walking Dead. So everyone wants to know: Can you really call it a zombie drama if nobody’s corpse is rotting?
Watching the drama unfold — slowly, moodily, over a goosebumpy soundtrack by Mogwai — you might find yourself waiting for some nightstalker to suddenly flip out and gorge himself on pancreas and spleen, just to stop everything from feeling so impossibly chic, so impeccably French. But The Returned strips away the usual conventions of the genre, which is exactly what makes it so deeply unsettling. What’s left is an affecting meditation on grief. The story begins with a hold-your-breath shot of school bus careening off an Alpine cliff, with children trapped inside. (I got flashbacks of The Sweet Hereafter.) Four years later, as the victims’ families gather for a group therapy session, one of the children who was killed in the crash comes back: 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) suddenly shows up inside her mother’s house, ravenously hungry — but only for spaghetti. Soon, others like Camille start appearing all over town. There’s Simon (Pierre Perrier), the sexy drummer with the Strokes haircut, who’s searching for his fiance, unaware that she’s now engaged to another man. There’s Victor (Swann Nambotin), the strange little boy who lurks in bus stops. Oh, and there’s Serge (Guillaume Gouix), the serial killer who guts his victims and snacks on their organs. Uh… yum?
But despite Serge’s fondness for human paté, none of the “returned” are particularly zombie-like. (This seems to be a trend lately: just look at the perfectly preserved dead boy in ABC’s upcoming series Resurrection, or the lifelike teenagers in BBC America’s In the Flesh.) They’re all impossibly young, with apple cheeks and dewy eyes and stylish, maggot-free outfits. They use actual words rather than just vowel sounds, and they’re able to convey real emotions beyond “vaguely starving” or “frustrated that I must drag this decaying foot behind me.” Yes, they’ve been resurrected for mysterious reasons — it has something to do with rising dam levels, an erratic power supply, and other things that make people who work for the French government shout, “Zut Alors!” — but other than that, they’re pretty normal. “Am I some kind of zombie?” Camille asks the local priest, Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier). “No, you’re not some kind of zombie,” he replies. “Than what am I?” she asks. The answer? Something much scarier. Sadder, too. Maybe she’s just like the rest of us.
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