'The Returned': A quiet zombie drama from Sundance

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NEW YORK — One exception to the mysteries of death is a certain cold comfort in its finality. “Dead as a doornail” leaves no room for doubt.

But The Returned imagines an unsettling alternative: Loved ones back from the grave, stirring things up as they re-enter a community that has moved on without them — or tried to.

Though it inevitably will be branded as another zombie drama, The Returned couldn’t be further from The Walking Dead. The eight-hour Sundance Channel series, premiering at 9 tonight, is set in a seemingly idyllic French mountain town where a succession of past residents, long dead and buried, begin showing up, as bewildered by what has befallen them as are the locals they want to rejoin.

They aren’t snarling, wild-eyed or decomposing (hold the latex makeup). Each of them – whether the schoolgirl, Camille, a victim of a terrible accident, or Simon, who died on his wedding day, or Victor, a parentless child whose life was brutally cut short – appears just as he or she did in life, frozen in time at the moment it ended.

The return of dead people, however lifelike they might be, disrupts the fragile status quo of the living. No wonder these undead get a mixed reception.

In Camille’s case, her parents, still haunted by her death three years earlier, are hard-pressed to fathom her return to their household, and all the more at a loss to account for it to others. Camille must therefore stay at home, hidden from sight, only heightening her sense of otherness while her twin sister, now three years older, treats her with suspicion and contempt.

Imagine the reception Simon gets from his former fiancee, Adele, still in love with him, and his very different welcome from Thomas, the town’s police captain, who’s now engaged to marry her.

While investigating a gruesome recent murder, Thomas discovers Adele cheating on him with Simon. So, yes, there’s the occasional attack.

But the mood of The Returned is elegiac, not bloody. It’s beautifully, meditatively paced. Evocative soundtrack music comes from Mogwai, the Scottish progressive rock band. Even an early, shockingly violent scene takes place at a disinterested remove, displayed to viewers with disturbing detachment.

The message: Pain and fear cut deeper than human flesh.

Last month the A&E network announced it’s developing an American version of The Returned. But this is the French original, with English subtitles and actors who will likely be unknown to Sundance viewers.

The Returned explores the question: How can the living move on when the dead get a do-over?


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