As a kid, I watched all kinds of horror movies with nary a nightmare to show for it. Oh, sure, the part in Poltergeist when that guy ripped his face off while looking in the mirror made me a little queasy, but what did I do the very next day? That’s right, I got a book on movie makeup effects to find out how they did it. I used to watch Creature Features every day after school. I saw King Kong and Godzilla movies as a fetus! To paraphrase Kenny Rogers: "I was raised on the scary movies, bitch!"
The one thing that still creeps beneath my skin to this day, though, is zombies. Not the brain-eating aspect of it. Not the rotting flesh or the shuffling walk. I think what bothers me most about zombies is the fact that they are so human. Zombies are the people that you know-- your best friend, your family-- who suddenly want to eat you. The fact that there is still some kind of memory there (like they still want to go to the mall even though they’re dead and their credit cards have probably been cancelled by now) just gets to me.
Which brings me (finally) to this month’s Freak Film: They Came Back-- which is also known as Les Revenants, a French film which takes a more art-house, cerebral approach to the idea of the living dead. The films starts with the dead simply coming back to life. Everyone who has died in the last ten years is suddenly just back without any explanation (just like George Romero). But instead of them being flesh-eaters, they’re just a little "off". And as a result, a mass humanitarian effort is mounted to reunite the reanimated with their families.
What is so amazing about this film is that they somehow retained the dread of traditional zombies, but the cerebral interpretations of the events are even more powerful. The characters' reactions differ so widely. Some are so accepting and happy to have their loved ones back that they take them in without noticing any of the odd bits of behavior. Other people want nothing to do with their until-recently deceased husbands or wives, and are not able to deal with the situation at all.
The movie builds and builds as more things are discovered about the returned, and so does the sense of dread. But again, this is no normal zombie movie. It’s more of an existential fugue, where possibility and questions become bigger than the situation itself. This is a slow-building movie that reminded me at times of Wim Wender’s Until The End Of The World. It's the kind of film whose ideas take root and live outside of the film itself; brilliant ideas that make you believe in the situation no matter how far-fetched.
The performances of the French actors, none of whom I was familiar with, also help to sell you the idea that this is really happening. Falling completely into the ideas presented in They Came Back, there were several times when I found myself thinking more about the other aspects of having the dead come back to life than the actual story unfolding before me, like the amount of paperwork, trying to get drivers' licenses reinstated, or life insurance companies wanting their money back. But even these ideas that are not covered in the movie somehow helped it seem even more real and disturbing.
And as with all zombie movies, watch They Came Back alone at night.