When the dead roam the Earth once more ... the tagline of many a zombie flick out there. Usually a good indication that plenty of growling, lurching and brain eating will ensue in the coming 90 minutes. But some films dare to take a different approach. Some genre cinema is about breaking all the rules rather than following them. Les Revenants is exactly such a film.
The French new wave of horror films is both a blessing and a curse. Without it films like Les Revenants would have gone lost in the crowd, but due to the renewed interest in French genre cinema it is starting its second youth. On the other hand, expectations for French horror films are pretty rigid, which means that many will be expecting shock and extreme gore. Those people will be largely disappointed when they find out what its all about.
These last couple of years there's been a tendency to use popular horror icons and clichés, take them out of their native setting and create something entirely new with them. Films like Deadgirl (zombies) and Grace (vampires) are good examples of this trend. Even though they are telling stories of tired old horror myths, they seem to avoid many of the clichés inherent to these particular sub genres. Les Revenants does a similar thing but goes one step further. Even though we're basically dealing with zombies here, it's been pulled completely out of its horror context.
The dead might have returned from the grave, but it appears they've come back in rather good shape. No rotting corpses with that strange urge to eat human brains, just people who were once dead before, brought back to life. A few minor quirks maybe, but generally in good health. Instead of focusing on the trials of the dead, Campillo aims his camera at the living. We follow three characters who are reintroduced to a dead family member and see how they try to deal with the situation. Sounds pretty novel, but if you've dabbled in Asian cinema before you might be reminded of Shiota's Yomigaeri (Resurrection), which boasts an almost identical premise.
Visually Les Revenants is a tad boring. While there are some interesting shots and scenes, like the first march of the dead, it's a little plain and even a little cheap in places. It's obvious that beyond its intent there wasn't any room for effects in the first place. There is only one real effect shot which looks remarkably poor. Some scenes are shot with a heat cam (apparently the body temperature of the dead is a little lower than ours) which does add some flair to the film, but in the end it still felt a little lacking.
The soundtrack on the other hand is spot on. Not in the least subtle but very fitting nonetheless. Moody ambient music is draped across key scenes to underline the strange and mysterious events unraveling on screen. It creates a somewhat uneasy feeling that fittingly mimics the emotions of the characters. Acting is a little uneven at times though. The main cast does a pretty good job, but supporting characters can come off somewhat amateurish. Nothing too bad, but a stronger cast could've given some extra depth to some of the characters.
While Yomigaeri approached the idea from a more romantic point of view, Les Revenants can come off as somewhat distant and rigid. There are no happy welcome back parties, Campillo is more interested how people cope in a situation where grief and closure are revoked. In that sense, the film is quite honest (you can read that as emotionally harsh). I'm sure not everyone will be pleased with this, but it does give the film a pretty unique flavor and it makes for several rather uneasy scenes.
The film remains mysterious throughout its complete running time, though nothing much is actually happening. We follow the lives of the three characters as they try to cope with what is happening to them. There aren't any big revelations or mind-shattering explanations, but the finale is satisfactory and keeps a layer of mystery hanging over the film. Les Revenants is a nifty take on the zombie genre, drawing lots of atmosphere from its score and introducing some very interesting themes. It's a definite recommendation for those looking for something a little different.