What is Channel 4’s The Returned?

Exciting new Channel 4 import The Returned, known in French as Les Revenants, promises a different take on a very familiar genre…

“Leave it to the French to take all the fun out of a Zombie flick, overly intellectualizing even the most base of cinema forms.” That was the light-heartedly xenophobic verdict of one critic on Robin Campillo’s 2004 Les Revenants (They Came Back), a film that stages the return of the dead not as a lead pipe ‘n’ chainsaw bludgeon-fest, but a social drama about how we’d really greet our resurrected loved ones.

Tongue-in-cheek though that line presumably is, it reveals a few commonly held presuppositions about the walking dead in fiction. The first is that the presence of zombies turns a film into a flick, a substitution that’s more than just synonym. Flicks are fun, light-weight, popcorn-spillers, ninety minute thrill-rides that you forget by the time your feet have left the cinema’s sticky carpet. Films on the other hand, can be thought-provoking, tedious, long, difficult… Even worse, they can be French. 

Tagging zombie flicks “the most base of cinema forms” is likely done here with the fond indulgence of fandom and not the arsy snootiness of passing judgement. It’s a popular view though, so much so that the word zombie is now a punch line in itself. Tack it on to the end of a Regency novel title and you have yourself a franchise (admittedly a franchise with just the one, lone gag, but a franchise all the same). Need shorthand for pulp-y, Grand Guignol violence? Just add zombies, the shuffling, groaning, walking shotgun targets that have given us so many hours of subtext-free, uncomplicated fun. 

Except, they’re never subtext-free are they, stories about the undead? Anyone who did their GCSE coursework on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will be able to give you a colour-coded run-down on the mutable symbolism of the reanimated creature. (No, he’s not technically a zombie, before anyone sends in an angry flowchart explaining so, but there’s overlap when it comes to discussions of ‘The creature as Other’ and whether ‘Society is the real monster’.) Communism, consumerism, HIV… zombies provide the blank template onto which all these readings and more are projected. 

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That word – blank – could explain the anti-intellectual response. If zombies can mean anything, then perhaps they mean nothing, or at least, nothing specific. That’s where The Returned comes in, the English title for the French Canal + series Les Revenants based loosely upon Campillo’s film and coming to Channel 4 later this year. The Returned doesn’t deal in an anonymous walking dead, but the specifics of people who’ve died, coming back years later and picking up where they left off. 

If bells are ringing in the minds of those of you who enjoyed the first episode of BBC Three’s terrific In the Flesh (continuing on Sunday at 10pm for the next fortnight), there are similarities of premise. Both see the undead returning to their families years after dying, but while the world of In the Flesh underwent a zombie uprising and developed medical treatment for its afflicted in that time, the world of The Returned went on as normal, the dead staying buried until the day they turned up again, hungry and insomniac, with no memory of what happened to them.

The setting for eight-episode series The Returned is an insular Alpine village dominated by an imposing dam which later becomes a plot point, a setting co-writer and director Fabrice Gobert chose for its combination of modernity and grandiose nature. “The idea was that the revenants weren’t zombies, but human beings like everybody else, more alive even than the inhabitants of the town who are in mourning and preoccupied with death. We also wanted to break out of the typical zombie model, Romero films – which I love – were a counterpoint . We didn’t want to go in that direction, but instead, to privilege the personal and magic realism over cut and dried fantasy.”

“It’s a new genre”, explains Fabrice de la Patellière, head of drama at French channel Canal +, in reference to The Returned’s realist depiction of supernatural  events. With Warm Bodies, In the Flesh, and The Returned released within the same few months, not to mention failed 2007 CBS pilot Babylon Fields, the non-threatening zombie, or “zombie amical” as one French website terms it, could be the latest sub-genre in on-screen representations of the undead.

Co-writer Emmanuel Carrère says the aim of The Returned was “to deal with an unrealistic situation in a realistic way”. Tally that goal with director Gobert’s tonal influences (David Lynch and Mark Frost series Twin Peaks, Tomas Alfredson film Let the Right One In, and Bret Easton Ellis novel Lunar Park, according to an article in Le Monde), his visual muse (photographer Gregory Crewdson, whose work Gobert describes as “revealing the other side of the American Dream”, see below), and musical inspiration (post-rock Scots Mogwai composed the moody soundtrack based on the script alone), and we’re promised something unique. 

Aside from the massive critical praise The Returned garnered in France last year, more good news is that eight episodes won’t be the end of it. A second series is already due to film this May in time for an early 2014 French broadcast, which means that if it’s as good as everybody says it is, we won’t be bereft for long.

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The fact we’re getting The Returned over here owes no small debt to the critical success of The Killing and Borgen. Having proved that there was a small but dedicated market for quality non-English language drama in the UK (and a very vocal group of columnists and reviewers happy to bang its drum), Scandi-noir has blazed the trail for further impressive European imports, Les Revenants hopefully being one of many more to come. 

The BBC brought us great subtitled crime drama, and now Channel 4, cementing its reputation as the home of clever speculative fiction after the superb Black Mirror and Utopia, is putting the brains back into zombies. C’est fantastique.

The Returned comes to Channel 4 later this year, and as soon as we know the exact dates and times, we’ll let you know.

UPDATE: It’s been brought to our attention that AbbottVision and FreeMantleMedia Enterprises have recently acquired the English adaptation rights for Les Revenants, under the working title of They Came Back. Read more about the deal here.

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