Robin Campilo’s ‘The Returned’ (2004)

Today see’s the release of Robin Campilo’s The Returned, the original French film that inspired the hit series that is currently airing on Channel 4 in this country. Thanks to Arrow, the feature is getting a re-release and a new title (bye bye They Came Back, hello new title to cash in on the series’ popularity) and is an absolute must-see of a film.

The premise to The Returned is quite simple. It offers an intersting, if not entirely believable (or is it..?) geo-political question; what if the dead really did come back to life? Instead of focusing on the political side of this dilemma, or creating a mass action film in which countries struggle with containing thousands of ‘extra’ people, or creating a horror built on blood and guts, co-writers Campilo and Brigitte Tijou explore the emotional side to the question. The result is a slow-burning but well paced exploration of the different ways in which one might react when presented with the return of a dead loved one.


Opening in an unknown town in France, the audience are told that the dead are returning. Seventy million worldwide, thirteen thousand currently in France. There’s no pattern to the activity, but they’re back, and people have different opinions towards it. All they seem to want to do is get back on with their lives, but when your child has been dead for four years or you’ve been widowed for a while, its difficult to suddenly adjust to such a major change. Again. And whilst you think it might be easy to slip back into old routines, the reality is that sometimes it isn’t (and you don’t need the dead to come back to life to tell you that!). Isham and Veronique are, at first, generally happy to see their young son return, except that over time Veronique begins to notice behavioral patterns and cottons on that something isn’t quite right with him. Isham on the other hand takes to fatherhood again as if things had never changed, growing to slowly resent his wife’s coldness. The towns old Mayor doesn’t initially take to his wife’s return, then changing to welcoming and accepting her and then beginning to get frustrated and confused about her existence. Rachel on the other hand can’t bring herself to visit her returned husband, however once they finally meet she welcomes him home with open arms. But is he the same person he was before?


You see, the dead suffer with a form of aphasia, meaning they cannot create any new memories, whilst some struggle to remember their past. Society has deemed them untrustworthy and so when they present with remembering their old working lives and start going back to work, they can only perform the most menial of tasks at the request of officials. They don’t appear to be of any major threat, but their expressionless faces, blank eyes, moments of blacking out and endless walking marathons make them a ticking time bomb. Over time do they realise their state of living? It would appear so, and yet society isn’t so sure, for the reality is that studies on this scale would take years. The returned have a natural restlessness, made all the more eerie by their inability to sleep or eat much, and appear to gather at night in droves. Some are occasionally controlled by a drug that makes them collapse in a state of sleep, but does the drug have side effects? What are they doing, and should we be worried?


The Returned really is one of the best zombie films I have ever seen. I’ve only watched two episodes of the show, and anyone dubious of watching the original source need not be. The tone is exactly the same, the feature shot beautifully (with some simple yet stunningly composed shots) and the entire films production  and sound design simply effective, complementing the premise perfectly. The returned are presented both as people to feel sympathetic for and almost plague like, appearing in one scene as coming out of hiding in a woods by a main road like locusts, invisible behind trees and then suddenly everywhere in the space of a second. Can these people ever be phased back into society? It seems that no matter how much you do for them, the answer is a resounding no. It’s also very well acted, the ensemble of all the leads being very impressive, in particular Geraldine Pailhas as Rachel, Jonathan Zacci as Mathieu, Marie Matheron as Veronique and Frederic Pierrot as Health Worker Gardet (who also appears in the television series playing Jerome).


The aspect I loved most about the picture is the fact that it made you think. Focusing on character emotion and providing a plot point that would naturally arouse different emotional feeling really makes you consider how you would cope if faced with the films premise. Some of you might think you’d be fine, cool and well composed, but would you?  What if your favourite relative, the love of your life, your best friend or your child reappeared (made painfully poignant in a scene where a couple walk past tents of people meeting a returned one when a Nurse walks past cradling a child that could be a maximum of a year old, the contrast of which against a large number of old people seems all the more sad) after years of not being there. Joy, confusion, unease, happiness, worry, its a, personally, complex issue and one that I find completely incomprehensible. And that’s why the film works so well; it presents the idea, but doesn’t dictate its outcome in a way that feels like its being thrown down your throat. You feel for the characters and their various predicaments. You feel human, for the film is essentially about humanity; what it consists of and how far it stretches.

When it comes to the final act, you really are gripped to find out how it all reaches the pinnacle, the ending both angering you and making you feel as sad as some of its leads. If you want a zombie film that isn’t of the usual ilk, buy this. And if you’ve had friends raving about how good the television series is, seek this out to watch first. A well crafted masterpiece, The Returned is a sure future classic, its just a shame its taken the tv series to bring it out of its shadow.


One thought on “Robin Campilo’s ‘The Returned’ (2004)

  1. Pingback: ‘The Returned’ aka ‘They Came Back’ (2004) review | Miss Meyer

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