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Year of the zombie

2013 was the Year of the Zombie in entertainment media, from one of the most phenomenally successful series on television, “The Walking Dead,” to the unexpectedly huge box office of “World War Z” – at one point a train wreck of reshoots that was expected to land in theaters with a thud.

They’re getting in on the zombie action overseas, too.  Two foreign TV shows in particular reached American audiences this year: the BBC’s “In the Flesh,” and the French program “Les Revenants” (“The Returned.”)  Both offer unusual takes on the zombie genre, informed by the different cultures that created them.

“In the Flesh” is more accessible, and shorter – the first season is only three episodes long.  (The more I watch BBC programming, the more I think they have the right idea by keeping their seasons short; many of the high-grade U.S. series have also begun delivering seasons of a dozen episodes or less.)  A zombie apocalypse along the lines of “The Walking Dead” happened four years before the show begins, and humanity won.  In fact, a cure for zombies was found (the British health service names the condition “Partial Death Syndrome” or PDS, which sounds exactly right.)  Zombies can receive injections of a drug that restores their minds and curbs their craving for flesh, then apply makeup and contact lenses to pass for more-or-less human.  The makeup department really knocks itself out making the actors look like zombies wearing convincing human disguises.

The show follows a rehabilitated young zombie returning to his little country village, grappling with his post-traumatic-stress memories of killing and eating people, and dealing with the rather understandable prejudice of the living – who are not entirely convinced this whole “cure for zombies” thing is going to hold up, despite the assurances of the government.  It’s a bit heavy-handed in the way it uses undeath as a metaphor for other forms of prejudice, but well-written and well-acted enough to be forgiven for jumping on a soapbox every now and then.  The zombie girl who adamantly refuses to disguise herself as human is a hoot.  There’s another season on the way, with a double-size order of episodes; it’ll be interesting to see what “In the Flesh” can do when it gets a little room to breathe, if you’ll pardon the pun.

“The Returned,” on the other hand, is not a conventional zombie story at all.  It’s hard to say exactly what it is.  There’s a bit of the “Lost” mystery box at work here, a dash of “Twin Peaks” inexplicable weirdness, and a lot of mood.  The opening credits are moodier than most moody American TV shows.  The slow, dreamlike pace and (unless you speak French) need to read a novel’s worth of subtitles are barriers, but they’re well worth overcoming, because “The Returned” does something entirely different with the concept of the dead rising from the grave to torment the living.

In an achingly beautiful French mountain town, situated next to a dam where something is going slowly, ominously wrong, a group of seemingly unconnected dead people return to life, awakening one day with no memory of having been dead.  The questions of how they returned to life, and why these particular people were able to rise from the grave, remain enigmatic, but unlike the random pulling-crap-out-of-their-hats wackiness that ruined “Lost,” the writers of “The Returned” seem to be going somewhere with it all.  It’s a long, slow, beautiful, haunting journey, as bits of character backstory and town history are slowly filled in.

There’s no brain-munching zombie action, although the occasional outburst of violence is all the more shocking because the normal pace of the show is so leisurely.  Nods to the conventions of zombie fiction are everywhere, from the depredations of a cannibal serial killer, to the perpetual gnawing hunger of The Returned for pounds of conventional food, to the characters occasionally referencing zombie fiction (and Biblical passages on resurrection) as they try to figure out what’s going on.  There is a great deal of conversation, and many quiet scenes where the striking visuals tell a story viewers are meant to piece together on their own.  

As slow and graceful as the eight episodes of the first season are, “The Returned” might prove more unsettling to some viewers than the intense survival horror of “The Walking Dead.”  Among other things, one of the creepiest child actors in history is on hand to make your skin crawl with his enigmatic little smiles.  The whole thing is filled with a sense of inexorable gathering dread, a softly ticking clock of doom that might surprise patient viewers with just how powerfully it detonates in the last episode of the first season, when it becomes abruptly clear that this is a zombie show, after all.

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