With zombie film and television experiencing a resurrection in popularity these past few years, it’s no surprise that my first few encounters with “The Returned” presented it as a very ‘French’ take on the genre with a more dramatic flair. Now, that perspective certainly holds some ground as a lot of the conflict initially deals in the emotional consequences of the dead returning to life. However, in a debut that proved to be stronger than any other that I’ve seen in a while, my expectations were sidestepped completely as the series’ atmospheric grief and sense of unease began to show signs of madness and something much more sinister underneath.
“We can sleep when we’re dead.”
In a small, isolated town settled in the mountains, fourteen year old Camille (Yara Pilartz) unexpectedly returns to her family home four years after her death during a school trip. Around the same time, local librarian, Adele (Clotilde Hesme), begins catching glimpses of her dead fiancé, while nurse, Julie (Celine Sallette), finds herself caring for a young boy who has mysteriously appeared on her doorstep. While reactions to these apparent resurrections range from relief to crippling fear, those returning from the dead are completely unaware that any time has passed since their demise. As all try to adjust to this new turn of events, the water level of the local dam begins to drop without any apparent cause.
Taking its time in exploring the why and how of the situation, the series begins by offering an intimate perspective that grounds the events more in reality than the premise may first imply. There is no uprising or sudden bouts of chaos to upset the otherwise peaceful lives of the townspeople. Instead, the families of the dead are quietly pushed into the situation and forced to deal with the issues as they appear. Attempts are made to keep the dead hidden, old feelings begin to resurface, and the dead bring with them all the baggage and past memories that they carried before. With such character driven plot points acting as the series’ introduction, the cast does exceptionally well in lending the series the credibility needed to avoid any ridiculous melodrama. As the series intertwines short flashbacks with present day scenes to piece together its story, each member of the cast succeeds at portraying the overlapping characteristics that define their characters in both the past and present, which makes the passage of time feel tangible.
“It looks like he’s back.”
That doesn’t mean the supernatural influence of the series is forgotten, however. There are, of course, a string of mysteries surrounding the return of the dead. Why did only certain people return? What is the meaning behind the stigmata that is beginning to appear? Why is a pattern of serial murders resurfacing after seven years of silence? Boasting an incredible ability to lead its viewers along and reveal just enough to maintain interest, “The Returned” uses atmosphere and cinematography to full effect throughout. Flickering lights, isolated spaces, imposing figures, and unexplained deaths morph the quiet town into an unsettling location for the series very quickly. While it never rides the zombie connection too heavily, the series definitely knows how to play up the inherent unease of the situation in preparation for the more horrific elements that appear later on.
Offering a well executed balance between human drama and horror, “The Returned” manages to breathe new life into a genre that is very quickly losing steam. If you’re not able to catch it on the Sundance Channel, don’t let that deter you. This French import will leave you with plenty to ponder well after its final minutes.