The dead are walking again, and not just on AMC. Qualitatively speaking, two polar opposites with zombie themes premiere in the next week: “The Returned,” a brainy, bizarre yet strangely hypnotic French drama based on the film “Les Revenants,” being shown with subtitles on Sundance Channel; and “Zombie Night,” a brain-dead exploitation pic from Syfy, more interesting for its auspices (more on that shortly) and cheeky casting than anything onscreen. If there’s one to watch it’s the former, reflecting some of the interesting TV work being done around the globe, and the willingness of programming-hungry niche networks to provide it a showcase.
To call “The Returned” a zombie story is actually something of a misnomer, since it’s really a tale of grief and loss — and a rumination on life and death — with a creepy undercurrent running through it. The show also tries to do a bit too much, weaving in a serial-killer subplot, which feels gratuitous given everything else that’s happening.
Seven years after a bus accident killed a number of teenagers in a quiet mountain town, one of them, Camille (Yara Pilartz), walks back into town. This understandably throws an emotional grenade into the lives of her estranged parents (Anne Consigny, Frédéric Pierrot), whose first impulse is to hide the girl and this perceived gift from who knows where, fearing how the outside world will react.
Yet Camille is not alone, with other resurrected folk including a young man (Pierre Perrier) whose death left his intended bride (Clotilde Hesme) at the altar; and an eerie young boy (Swann Nambotin, simply mesmerizing) who won’t speak, though strange happenings seem to follow in his wake. Also, there’s the little matter of new attacks by a long-dormant killer, suggesting he might be among the risen.
Directed and co-written by Fabrice Gobert, the series uses the device of flashing back to fill in details pertaining to a different member of the returned in each episode, while constantly questioning — if providing few answers — about what this all might mean. In that regard, one has to suspend a bit of disbelief, inasmuch as even in a remote town a team of experts, analysts and cable news correspondents would be all over the place as soon as a whiff of this got out.
As for the dead themselves, they seem oddly normal, other than a hearty appetite and a slightly vacant look. Being French, they also prove as sexually adventurous as the living, and there’s a whole lot of that and graphic nudity as well.
Not every beat works, but after watching an hour it was hard not to stick with “The Returned” for the full ride. In that respect, a close European cousin — in tone if not the particulars — would be the U.K.’s “Broadchurch,” which beguiled critics with its atmosphere and visuals, even if the payoff in both instances fell somewhat short.
“Zombie Night,” meanwhile, is an almost comically amateurish effort from the network whose titles-before-execution mentality brought the world “Sharknado,” and a slightly depressing one at that.
For starters, it’s directed by John Gulager, who might be best remembered as the winner of the filmmaking competition show “Project Greenlight,” for which he made the zombie movie “Feast” (and a couple of sequels). So to find him still mired in this sort of rut is almost as disheartening as seeing Anthony Michael Hall and Daryl Hannah sleepwalk their way through the proceedings, which involve a completely unexplained zombie outbreak, and an excuse to expose lots of spurting blood and entrails.
Hall and Hannah’s characters spend most of the movie trying to keep their family alive (including Shirley Jones, for a while anyway, as grandma), without much help from their neighbor (Alan Ruck), who has the world’s most poorly defended panic room set up to protect his brood. If the premise is supposed to recall that “Twilight Zone” episode where one resident has a bomb shelter in the midst of a missile scare, Gulager and company apparently got tripped up by all the conspicuous makeup-effect slop.
Partly inspired by the success of “The Walking Dead,” zombies are certainly getting a workout, with projects ranging from the metaphorical (see BBC America’s “In the Flesh”) to “The Returned’s” metaphysical take to something like “Zombie Night,” which highlights the problem of placing all one’s focus into gore and the dead without giving the audience any reason to care about those upon whom they are feasting. Heck, even the background actors playing the zombies look like they’d rather be ambling elsewhere.
With “Walking Dead” chewing through Nielsen milestones, the zombie smorgasbord is probably still in its infancy. But for those putting out the buffet, it’s worth holding these examples side by side, if only to realize — thanks to something like “The Returned” — that when approached with style and ambition, horror can still be good brain food.