George Romero has so thoroughly changed the popular conception of zombies that it's difficult to even think of the word without bringing to mind Romero's particular creation. Whereas cinematic zombies were once a colonialist construction—think voodoo—flesh- (or brain-) eating undead have become the norm. Anthropophagous zombies have even made their literary mark—and I'm not even talking about the Jane Austen zombie novel. So with zombies becoming the status quo, what's a French auteur to do?
Robin Campillo, who has written some of the more interesting French films of the last decade (Time Out, Heading South, and most recently, The Class), takes the director's helm for Les Revenants, his debut feature. Campillo jettisons Romero's conception of zombies, but the cultural baggage that remains creates a lingering unease. They're dead; of course they're up to no good. As Campillo starts the film with long shots of the dead, streaming out the cemetery and walking down the street, the dead remain almost as impassive and inscrutible as the living.
Campillo also sets out an interesting metaphor: the zombie as immigrant. Early in the film, as the Red Cross shepherds the newly un-deceased quarters where they can be catalogued and identified, one city council member remarks that their living conditions are like that of refugees. And, the fears that one assigns to newcomers to the country increasingly become assigned to the zombies. How can we give them all jobs? Why do they congregate together? What do they want? Campillo addresses these fears with a light touch: surveillance cameras mounted upon weather balloons keep track of the undead residents. And let's hear it for undead civil rights: in one mordantly humorous scene, the members of city council are assured that the balloons only register the lower body temperature of the zombies, and not their faces. Still, one panoramic shot, the camera does a 360, showing not only the balloons hanging low in the sky, but also the stone-faced (and primarily elderly) zombies. No speedy clamboring for human flesh here!
Towards the end of the movie, however, it becomes clear that zombies do, in fact, have an ulterior motive, and in a scene that seems prescient, Campillo depicts them blowing up cars (hints of the Paris riots again). The zombie as foreign infiltrator/terrorist? Not surprisingly, the Army appears with a plan to quell the zombie uprising once and for all. They got your civil rights right here.
But the zombie-as-immigrant is only a metaphor. Les Revenants seems more concerned the process of grieving. The ways in which people come to terms with their grief—whether parents reunited with their young son or an elderly widower with his wife—becomes the central issue. How does a woman return to life, so to speak, with a husband that she previously thought lost to her forever? Can people return to normal even if there is nothing normal about them? Jonathan Zaccaï plays the dead husband in question with an impassive face and steely blue eyes, but as he begins to regain his memory, that mask begins to quiver.
The ultimate goal of the zombies, however, remains opaque, and the ending feels tossed-off, as if Campillo is unsure of how to conclude his what if. But having established such a heartbreaking set-up—the scene in which two parents slowly wait as their returned son slowly comes into focus for the first time conveys such overwhelming grief—one can cut Campillo some slack for copping-out at the very end. After all, this is a movie that's all about letting go.