They Came Back
Wellspring // Unrated // $26.98 // June 21, 2005
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 21, 2005
Highly Recommended
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The French film Les Revenants, released domestically under the title They Came Back, is a more cerebral zombie film than most. In the context of a movie teeming with the walking undead, the word "cerebral" might lead some to think "braaaains...", but they aren't that sort of zombie, and this isn't that sort of movie. The film opens with thousands of the dead -- seemingly everyone who's passed away in the past ten years -- emerging from cemetaries. These aren't shambling, rotting corpses ravenous for human flesh. To the naked eye, at least, they're imperceptible from everyone else: clean, well-dressed, and in remarkably good health. The struggle is to answer the inevitable questions -- "why are they back, and what do we do with them?" The government struggles to figure out what actions to take -- should they be re-integrated back into society? Return to their former jobs? The recently dead are quiet, slow-moving, and can't reason as deftly as they could when they were alive, which makes it difficult for them to seamlessly wander back into the lives they'd left behind. Although glimmers of the people they once were remain, the dead have substantially changed. Their loved ones, many of whom were still reeling from their recent deaths, react differently to their return. Some grab hold of them in the hopes that the people they care about will somehow re-emerge from these laconic shells. Others are more hesitant and almost fearful, and as the ceaselessly active dead congregate late at night for some unknown purpose, that reluctance appears to be justified.

Even without graphic shots of zombies feasting on the living, They Came Back still manages to be unsettling. The wide shots of hordes of the dead slowly lurching forward, even if their flesh isn't rotting and their clothing isn't in bloodied tatters, is as eerie as anything presented in George Romero's films. The danger the undead pose isn't a direct threat, but what their presence represents, and using Romero as a touchstone again, the social commentary bubbles to the surface even more clearly than in Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. The emotional anguish its characters face with their understandably vastly differing responses to their loved ones' return is also intriguing, particularly the gradual shift from that initial anxiousness and excitement to something much more cautious. There's quite a bit to mull over throughout They Came Back, enough that I'd occasionally find myself lost in thought and forgetting to read the subtitles. Its underlying intelligence, coupled with the sense of mystery and uncertainty established throughout, leaves They Came Back feeling much leaner than its 103 minutes. My only disappointment comes near the film's climax, which has action shoehorned into a movie that doesn't need it. Although the questions Campillo poses don't have any easy answers, They Came Back's conclusion suggests that the writer/director gave up on trying. I can imagine the bureaucratic elements of the film turning off some viewers as well, but the fact that those scenes tend to be aimless and repetitive didn't bother me, and if anything, that seems to fit in with the film's refugees-as-zombies metaphor. Despite what some may interpret as missteps, I found They Came Back to be a thought-provoking, highly original film, and I'd recommend taking the time to give it a look.

Video: They Came Back is presented in anamorphic widescreen, windowboxed to the somewhat unusual aspect ratio of 2.28:1 or so. In most respects, this is a solid transfer -- the strength of its black levels, contrast, color saturation, a lack of visible wear or speckling -- but the movie is somewhat softer than normal. At least on my smaller display, the softness isn't an overwhelming disappointment, but it is frequently noticeable, presumably even moreso on particularly large televisions. Since the softness extends to the end credits, this doesn't appear to be an intentional aspect of the photography. The video still deserves a decent score, but if not for the pervasive softness, I would've given it higher marks.

Audio: The DVD offers a pair of soundtracks in the movie's original French -- one in stereo and the other in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps). Although this isn't the sort of zombie movie where the moans of the undead creak from every speaker and rifles are fired every couple of minutes, the six-channel soundtrack still sounds very nice. Sound effects such as the rumble of a small bus and what little gunplay there is have a rich, full presence, and the mix does a remarkable job keeping each channel buzzing with activity throughout. The haunting, keyboard-driven score also maintains a strong presence and takes advantage of the multichannel setup. The DVD does, of course, offer subtitles in English. There are no dubs, closed captions, or subtitles in any other language, however.

Supplements: Lengthy and comprehensive, the DVD's twenty-one minute 'making-of' featurette contains a large collection of footage shot on the set of the film. Much of They Came Back's key cast and crew are interviewed, and unlike the marketing-speak promotional interviews that litter too many DVD releases, their comments are insightful and show how much thought they've invested in the material and their particular tasks. Everything from detailed notes about the acting to the cinematography to the set design to special effects are covered. Significantly better than average. Like the movie, the featurette is in French and includes optional English subtitles.

Filmographies are provided for Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, and Frédéric Pierrot, along with an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer and clips from a handful of other Wellspring releases. The DVD includes a set of 16x9 animated menus and a total of twenty-four chapter stops. The disc is packaged in a keepcase, and no insert has been provided.

Conclusion: A low-key but intriguing re-envisioning of the zombie film, They Came Back is worth the effort to seek out. Highly Recommended.

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