The French teen zombies coming to steal your heart

The Returned is television’s latest must-see import

I’ve never had much time for zombies. Vampires, yes – especially if Isabelle Adjani is having her neck bitten (see Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre for further details), but the lumbering un-dead? 

Pack a chainsaw and stick to wide-open spaces and you should be fine. And while many have discerned low-budget satire in the zombie films of director George A Romero, and  others watch the American cable drama The Walking Dead as assiduously as I watch Mad Men, for me this resurrection shuffle seem only fit for ridicule. Come on down, Shaun of the Dead, the only zombie film I’ve ever properly enjoyed.

That is, until now. A new eight-part French series has altogether upended my prejudice. A smash hit when shown last year on the French pay channel Canal+, Les Revenants is this month’s must-see television drama.

The Returned, as it’s being called on Channel 4 (screening its first subtitled drama in 20 years), has taken the most cumbersome of horror genres and given it intelligence, style, heart and soul. It’s not a satire on consumerism, or a foretaste of the apocalypse, but an emotionally realistic, character-driven saga about what would happen in an ordinary French town (it’s actually filmed in Annecy in the Rhones-Alpes region) if the dead started returning to life.

Four years after a coach plunged off a mountain road killing a party of local schoolchildren, the mother of one of the dead, the 14-year-old Camille, discovers her daughter raiding the fridge, seemingly unscathed, un-aged and oblivious to her fate. “The weirdest thing happened to me,” Camille nonchalantly tells her stupefied “maman”, and soon other supposedly long-buried teenagers start turning up at their old homes.

“I love Romero’s films but I thought it would be interesting to imagine what might happen in the real world when the dead try to regain their place in  society,” says Fabrice Gobert, the writer-director of The Returned, who found inspiration from sources as diverse as the 2009 Swedish vampire movie  Let the Right One In, E4’s youthful  superpower fantasy Misfits  and Gregory Crewdson’s menacingly surreal photographs of small-town America. “I  generally don’t like fantasy TV shows,” he says. “I prefer The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, where it’s a bit slow and  focused on the characters.”

As such there are no big Gallic stars, and all the children were sourced  locally, including Yara Pilartz, who is wonderfully natural as Camille. The understated but atmospheric soundtrack is from Scottish rock band Mogwai, whose founding member, Dominic Aitchison, tells me that: “We tried to create an eerie tone without being cheesy, which is quite difficult, as we discovered.”

Caroline Benjo also produced the 2004 movie (again called Les Revenants) on which it is based, says they were surprised by its rapturous reception in France. “It also had a very strong response on the internet,” she says. “There were 20,000 people every night on the Facebook page on Canal+ for Les Revenants, just fighting about who had the right answer.”

Paul Abbott, creator of Shameless, has bought the English-language rights. “Paul was totally excited by the concept,” says Benjo, and it’s easy to see why, especially given the nice meta-touch that these French teenagers know their zombie lore. “The characters have seen zombie films so they are afraid to become zombies,”  says Gobert, who is busy writing a second series that will finally address the question: What is it exactly to  become a zombie? The undead are likely to get a more sympathetic  answer here than in this summer’s blockbuster World War Z, as those zombies are up against Brad Pitt. There’ll only be one winner there.

‘The Returned’ begins on Sunday 9 June at 9pm on Channel 4

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