Director – Robin Campillo, Screenplay – Robin Campillo & Brigitte Tijou, Producers – Caroline Benjo & Carole Scotta, Photography – Jeanne Lapoirie, Music – Martin Wheeler, Visual Effects – Mikros Image (Supervisor – Pascal Laurent), Special Effects – Philippe Alleton, Herve Dajon, Brahim El Amrani, Jean-Pierre Mouligne & Pierre Turmeau, Production Design – Laurent Baude & Mathieu Menut. Production Company – Haut et Court/France 3 Cinema/Gimages Development/Canal +/Centre National de la Cinematographie/La Sofica Gimages 6/La Region Ile-de-France, La Region Centre/La Atelier Production Centre Val de Loire, Accueil de Tournages.
Geraldine Pailhas (Rachel), Jonathan Zaccai (Mathieu), Frederic Pierrot (Dr Gardet), Victor Garrivier (The Mayor), Catherine Samie (Martha), Djemel Barek (Isham Fares), Marie Matheron (Veronique), Saady Delas (Sylvain Fares)
Everywhere those that have died in the last four years inexplicably reappear and seem to be in perfect health. The authorities are at a loss as to what to do. The dead are placed in emergency shelters where they are identified and then returned to their families where possible. It is also arranged for them to go back to their previous jobs. Strange things soon become apparent – the dead have a body temperature four degrees colder than the living and they are strangely blank. Their responses and memories are rooted in their previous lives and they are slow to adapt and process new information. They also need no sleep and are prone to wandering, often gathering together in groups. Rachel is reluctant to be reunited with her former boyfriend Mathieu. After doing so, she becomes increasingly concerned at Mathieu’s oddly serene blankness.
Going into watch They Came Back, the assumption I made based on the plot description in the film festival program was that it was a French zombie film. Perhaps a zombie film with a social allegory due to the fact that this was a festival screening. The surprise is that They Came Back is nothing of the sort – it has nominal similarities to Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the sense that both are films about the dead returning from their graves without any explanation and the living puzzling over why. However, similarities end about there. While Night of the Living Dead features the living at siege from the dead who are attempting to devour their flesh, They Came Back features dead that are serenely detached from the world around them. The dead here are not rotting and bedraggled; they come dressed in clean clothes and normal health. Indeed, it is their calm lack of any response as opposed to their insatiable ravenousness that make the dead here so disconcerting.
In fact, the responses of the civil authorities become so astonishingly careful, polite and ordinary that They Came Back becomes as about as far away from a zombie film as one might think possible. After the dead reappear (in a dazzling wide angle shot that shows them filling the length of a whole street and wandering past the astounded living), we immediately cut to the city council in a conference debating about what to do – there is no panic, the debate never moves above the everyday level of a committee discussion about passing bylaws on water treatment.
Moreover, there is an almost bend-over-backwards liberalism when it comes to their treatment – an insistence that the UN Charter and their civil rights be respected; they being returned to their jobs at great cost so as not to upset their feelings; even a debate about whether their civil rights are being violated when they are kept under covert camera surveillance.
If there is a social metaphor to be sought in They Came Back, the dead surely represent immigrants and the problems faced by the social authorities overrun with the question of how to integrate them into everyday society while respecting the culture they come from (a big issue in France in the last few years). In the US, this would surely be a completely different story – a less subtle director would turn it into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)-type film with surely an apocalyptic battle as the living try to vanquish the dead.
The main credibility problem I had with the film was that everything is so calm and orderly that it is almost impossible to believe that normal people would react in such a way to the sudden reappearance of the dead – almost nobody in the film responds to the situation with fear, let alone prejudice, which would almost certainly be the most normal human reaction to the situation. With a casualness that defies belief, the dead are reintegrated to their jobs and homes immediately without any concern what kind of impact or threat this might hold. What does work here is director Robin Campillo and the actors’ creation of a constant atmosphere of strangeness. Like any good science-fiction film, They Came Back is about ordinary people trying to rationally deal with an anomaly. The calm eeriness of the actors playing the dead has a considerably disconcerting alienness.
The film reaches a baffling non-ending. [SPOILERS ALERT]. Here the reason the dead are lurking around in groups is shown to be that they have gathered to set off a series of strategic explosions everywhere, after which they disappear underground into the sewers. However, just when the film seems to be building to a standard zombie movie apocalypse, it ends. The dead are then found atop their graves from where they slowly fade away. This is a decidedly baffling ending, the least of which is the lack of any explanation for the dead rising, nor any reason offered for their acts of sabotage and mass exodus.
They Came Back was later reworked as a French tv series The Returned (2012-5), which was followed by an English-language remake as The Returned (2015), which only lasted for ten episodes.