Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Movies: We prefer the term "metabolically challenged."

So, zombies. Maybe you’ve heard of them. The living dead. They’re kinda popular right now so like maybe you’ve seen them in a movie or read a comic book about them.

With the passage of the Zombie Mono-Culture Dominance Act of 2002, it has been a legal requirement that every third horror movie produced either in America or within the boarders of its NATO allies must be a zombie movie. The creators of the act would prefer it if the plot of the movie involved an unlikely group of survivors trapped and surrounded by the numberless legions of the dead. It is best if creative variation focuses on mobility issues (fast versus slow), the source of zombification (government screw-up versus ecological disaster), and the levels of gore reached. Otherwise, the more formulaic the better.

It is a sign, then, of how far US/French relations have disintegrated that France has produced one of the few truly original zombie movies to come out in the last four years. In fact, They Came Back (which, in France, goes by the considerably cooler name of Les Revenants) pushes the zombie-flick envelope ‘till it rips open.

The film, by writer/director Robin Campillo (who also co-wrote Time Out, a devastatingly eerie, but non-horror, psychological study of a laid-off white collar worker), starts right off with perhaps the most clichéd of zombie flick shots: a horde of the recently revived shuffling out of the local cemetery. Although, immediately, you notice a difference. These are not rotting ghouls. They are silent. Despite the fact that they number in the thousands, the only sound they make is the tread of their feet on the street leading into town. As the zombies reach the middle of town, the living gather to watch the strange sight. Some walk out to greet their loved ones, stunned to see them alive again. A voice over, which we later learn be the mayor’s voice, explains that somehow, all over the world, the dead came back. They are in perfect physical health. They seem to be mentally slower than their living counterparts, but for the most part they remember their lives. They want to go back to living with their families. They want their jobs back.

Throughout the rest of the film, we watch as the living, both on a personal and cultural scale, attempt to accommodate the dead. In the small town in which this film set, 130,000 recently dead people need reintegration. Worldwide, we’re told, the number is astronomical. On a personal level, what happens when your young child returns? Your lover of several years? Your wife?

To further complicate things, the dead come back physically well, but mentally there is something uncanny about them. Sometimes they seem pathetically retarded in their mental capacities. Other times, however, this quiet reserve seems sinister, as if they are patiently waiting for something.

They Came Back is not outright scary. There is no bloodshed. The “zombies” eat normal food and this they seem to do mainly to humor the living. Instead of a feeling of horror, Campillo builds a sustained paranoid and melancholic eeriness that is equal parts unsettling and heartbreaking. This he does through the slow accumulation of perfect little details. For example, when we are first introduced to the holding center that houses the dead while their loved ones come to get them, we get the striking and not immediately sensible image of uniformed soldiers painting blue lines on the floor of a gym. It takes a few moments to understand that they are setting up rows and rows of beds for what amounts to a flood of refugees. The images resonates with pictures from Katrina or the heat wave that struck Paris and this moment of recognition comes with a little extra punch because Campillo let the scene hang unresolved for a moment.

In a way, Campillo’s trust in the poetry of images over the power of narrative logic reminds me of his compatriot, Alexandre Aja. Both build emotionally valid impressions that, when they work, are strong enough to provide their own validation. Perhaps it is a French thing. Despite this similarity, it is impossible to imagine Aja creating a movie this subtle (or Campillo cranking out something as visceral as the circular saw/unlucky driver scene in High Tension). There’s another way in which this is a very French film. It seems to me that only France, with is secular semi-socialist ways would be more concerned about the effects of the returning dead on the pension system than they would be about whether or not returning from death yields any truths about life after death. Only one person, a nameless child character, asks one of the dead what it was like. Otherwise, everybody seems more concerned about how the return of dead relatives will effect their lifestyle. Seems to me that an American version of the movie would have talking heads arguing what this meant for religion, whether the dead would vote Republican or Democrat, and whether dead/living marriage is a sin. I’m not saying the latter would have been preferable. I’m just suggesting that it reflects a cultural difference.

Mermaid Heather, horror-blogger of note (see sidebar), has a policy of never giving out a perfect score for a movie unless it is actually scary. A movie might be technically flawless, contain great acting, and blah, blah – if it doesn’t bring the scares, then it doesn’t get the blue ribbon. This is a wise policy and, though I’ve broken this rule at least once already, I’m going to follow it here. As great a movie as They Came Back is, and as unnerving as it can be, it does not scare so much as unsettle. Therefore, using the Olympic Gold Performances of Amy Van Dyken handed down to me by my father and his father before him, I give They Came Back a 2000 Sydney 4 × 100 m freestyle relay. A winner of a film and certainly gold-worthy, but just short of a full 1996 Atlanta 100 m butterfly.


Heather Santrous said...

This sounds like an interesting movie. I knew I have been reading your blog for some reason. Well that and the great writing that you do. I think one of the first questions to be asked of the recently returned dead would be how is it possible? But I also think that the question you asked, what is death like? wouldn't be to far beind. Maybe they didn't want to get that deep so just skirted around it?

CRwM said...

Thanks for the compliment.

The DVD includes a short making-of film. In that featurette, Campillo states explicitly that he didn’t want to get into the how and why of the mass return. He just wanted to get to the story and the emotional conflict. That’s Kool and the Gang with me, but even if the director is not interested in the details and didn’t intend to get into them, it seems somehow false that the characters would be so disinterested.

Without spoiling too much, there are hints in the film that suggest asking the dead such questions would be useless. So, in terms of keeping his narrative from getting bogged down, he could have dismissed the whole issue by having somebody say something like, “We asked them about it and the answers were unsatisfactory.”

Personally, I can’t imagine not giving into the temptation to ask, “So, was there a God?”

All that said, I don’t think it detracts at all from the movie. It is just something I noticed.