Best thing you’ll see all week: The Returned

, | Movie reviews

One of the latest tweaks to zombie mythology is telling the story from the perspective of the zombies, or at least from a perspective sympathetic to the poor little guys. This is often for the absurdity of it all (Billy Connolly in Fido), or it doesn’t really make any sense (Warm Bodies), or it’s just clumsy (George Romero’s zombie/human detente at the end of Land of the Dead is the logical conclusion once he introduced the loveable Bub in Day of the Dead). Sometimes it’s actually thoughtful and intriguing, but not much of a movie (Colin).

But then there’s The Returned. Both of them.

After the jump, sometimes they come back.

There are two things called The Returned out this week. One is a French TV series (pictured), and the other is a movie. The first step in each story is to make the zombies look normal. You can’t very well have rotting flesh and whited out eyes. The next step is to explore the implications. Just when you thought zombie movies didn’t have any twists left, here are two new approaches to zombie mythology, to what it means, to the metaphor of inevitable death and loss of identity and insatiable appetite, to the stories we tell about the monsters invented by our generation.

In The Returned, the TV series, the zombies are simply people who have showed up after being dead for a long time. They have a weird predilection for sleeplessness and voracity, but are otherwise normal. Or at least as normal as they were before they died. In The Returned, the movie, the zombies are actually cured zombies, having been plucked from the brink of undeath by timely medical attention. But to remain normal, they need their daily dose of a rare drug. The point of both Returneds is that zombies can be as normal as death and sickness. Or can they?

Both are melodramas rather than standard horror movies. The French TV Returned is a metaphysical fable about coping with loss. It is to a zombie apocalypse what John Carpenter’s Starman is to an alien invasion. As befits TV, it is drawn out for far too long considering that nothing resolves by the time it’s over. “Over”. Season two hasn’t been shot yet, but is scheduled to air in France at the end of this year, which means we’ll get it in America sometimes between a year and never from now. It’s a long way to go without any resolution and only a questionable payoff. But at least there are some intriguing ideas and a handful of really good actors along for the laid back, mysterious ride. It seems like most of the show is soulful actors casting longing glances at each other, but what matters most is that they’re effective actors, beautiful in a variety of ways. In fact, the women on this show are drop-dead gorgeous in a way that US networks will never understand. Eat your heart out, ABC. Who knew a zombie series could be this flat-out sexy?

The movie, on the other hand, knows exactly where it wants to go and how to get there. It’s a story about the state of health care and how– Wait, don’t go! I promise it’s not as dull or heavy-handed as it sounds. As a movie about what we, as a society, do for people who are sick, it has more insight and nuance than Soderbergh’s Side Effects, or Neil Blomkemp’s Elysium, or even Michael Moore’s angry glib Sicko. The Returned isn’t preachy so much as it’s simply cynical and eventually mean-spirited. Health care systems run by governments are both necessary and untenable. Now watch people suffer because of it. Zombies thrown in for good measure.

The real strength of the movie The Returned is its character arc for Emily Hampshire (check out a really mean-spirited Canadian thriller called Good Neighbors to see her at her best). She plays both a doctor and someone with a close personal connection to an imperfect healthcare system. She is on both sides of a very thin line holding back a zombie apocalypse. I’m reminded of the overall point of the movie Carriers and The Dead Outside, both less ambitious but far better movies about shooting zombies in the head. But these are all stories more concerned with the shooter than the shootee. We’ve come a long way from the main dramatic impact of zombies being gore effects carefully engineered by guys like Tom Savini making sure the blood squib fires just so against the back wall. Now the dramatic impact is where it belongs. With the people shooting the guns.

The Returned, the French series, is also available now for VOD. Watch it here to support Quarter to Three. The movie The Returned will be available for VOD on Friday.