Horror is not a genre often traditionally associated with television, although as Helen Wheatley, Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett have pointed out television has a long history of telling horrific tales. It’s also not a genre with which I have much affinity or experience, being much too terrified to be able to watch most horror cinema. It was, therefore, with some surprise that I realized one evening in May that all of the television drama series I was watching were horror of one from or another, from the chilling (but often funny) tales of demons, ghosts and shapeshifters in Supernatural (CW, 2005-), to the visceral thrills of the zombie-fest The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-). In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the box in my living room had been rather overrun with uncanny, horrific or downright creepy tales of the undead in 2013, starting with the wonderful BBC Three drama series In the Flesh (BBC Three, 2013-), which explored the rehabilitation of zombies in a post-apocalypse world, closely followed by Les Revenants (The Returned, Canal+, 2013-) in which the dead come back to life apparently unchanged and as if they had never died. The day after Halloween seemed a fitting date for a blog that explored this return of the undead, and I want to focus here on three series that are offering a fresh perspective on the traditional zombie narrative: The Walking Dead, In the Flesh and Les Revenants.
The Walking Dead is perhaps the most traditional of the three ‘undead’ dramas I’ve been watching this year. In line with other zombie narratives it follows a protagonist, sheriff Rick Grimes (in a gripping performance from Andrew Lincoln), as he awakes from a coma to discover that the world has been overrun by flesh-eating zombies. Rick quickly teams up with a group of survivors and the subsequent series follow their attempts (and failures) to stay alive. The series is based on the American ongoing comic book series of the same name first published in 2003. Both the graphic novel and the television series deal with a problem I’ve long had with zombie movies, which is that the conclusions always seem rather unsatisfying. After ratcheting up the threat to the protagonists the solutions – often through rescue or the discovery of a safe survivors’ colony – never quite seem to ring true. And what I find really satisfying about The Walking Dead is precisely its on-going narrative structure. These characters are constantly beset by threat, loss, pain and anguish, and the series offers an interesting balance between an often sensitive exploration of the emotional and psychological experiences of living on the edge and the kinetic pleasures of visceral action and gore – my experience of watching the season 3 opening episode was more exhilarating than going on all six of the most hard-core rides at theme park Alton Towers in one day.
In fact, fan videos for the series circulate that simply edit together all of the zombie kills in their grisly detail.
While such gruesome violence is a key pleasure of the series, the fact that all of the zombie kills from seasons 1 and 2 can be edited into 7 minutes and 27 seconds attest to considerable focus in the series on the interpersonal lives and experiences of the survivors. Andrew Lincoln has claimed that the series is about loss, but I think it is about more than this, not just loss, but trauma and the question of whether humanity can survive in a world overrun by the inhumanity of the undead.
The series uses a number of narrative devices to explore these themes. The threat to the protagonists is palpably real and regular cast members frequently die (although one suspects that Rick will never be killed off), leading to constant speculation in our living room about who will survive each series. As a consequence, the series revisits the theme of loss over and over as the survivors have to deal with the death of loved ones and the guilt of survival itself. However, the series adds an additional layer to this through the narrative device that all humans who die, whether bitten by a zombie or not, will return as zombies. Every death, therefore, plays out twice as the survivors have to kill their recently deceased loved ones with a blow, blade or bullet to the head. This is perhaps most poignantly explored when Rick’s young son Carl has to kill his mother moments after she has died in childbirth. Through ratcheting up the consequences of death the series places humanity itself at the centre of its narrative, asking what one might have to sacrifice of oneself to survive in this world. After the death of his mother all attempts to retain some semblance of Carl’s childhood innocence are abandoned as we see him gradually adopt a harder position, culminating in the final episode of season 3 in which he shoots a young man from a rival gang as he attempts to surrender.
This loss of humanity as a theme is most overtly explored in season 3 through the character of The Governor (played with relish by David Morrissey), the self-styled leader of a rival group of survivors who gradually reveals his sadistic brutality. Fox’s Season 3 trailer focuses on The Governor and the theme of humanity’s role in this post-apocalyptic world.
Yet for me The Governor was almost too broadly drawn, with the big reveal that he kept the undead heads of his once human victims in glass boxes in his living quarters rather too over the top to be believable. Sure, the character of The Governor offers a model of the ways in which this post-apocalyptic world allows the most grotesque in humanity to be revealed, but I prefer it when the series gradually builds up the pressures on its characters, such as the moment in season 3 when Rick callously turns out a vulnerable group of newly encountered survivors. Traumatized by the death of his wife, Rick’s decision is tinged by grief and the weight of responsibility lying heavily on his shoulders and it allows the series to ask whether compassion is a luxury in this post-apocalyptic world.
Of course, the storyline with The Governor also allows the series to suggest that the greatest threat is not the zombies at all but other human beings. The zombies, after all, have motivations that are easy to read – they simply want to eat your flesh. The human beings in the series are far more complicated, unpredictable and, as a consequence, potentially far more dangerous. In this sense, The Walking Deadreminds me a lot of the 1970s UK series Survivors (BBC, 1975-77, remade in 2008) in its central concern with exploring how humans and humanity can survive once the structures of society are stripped away. Although The Walking Dead can occasionally veer into melodramatic excess, particularly in some of the less fine-tuned performances, it makes excellent use of its extended narrative structure, combined with a slew of visceral thrills, to offer an on-going exploration of what humanity might be in the face of survival.
The use of the zombie narrative to explore the nature of humanity and the threat of humans themselves also emerges as a central theme in BBC Three’s three-part series In the Flesh, which aired in March 2013 (and may well be my drama of the year). The series offers a more thorough re-working of the zombie narrative than The Walking Dead. Creator Dominic Mitchell explains how the series itself stemmed from both his long-standing love of horror and zombie movies and his own tendency to sympathise with the zombies themselves. Describing his experience of watching a ‘bad zombie movie’ in which the survivors appeared to enjoy blowing the heads off zombies with ‘macho glee’, he found himself thinking ‘that poor lad was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend and neighbour. How inhumane to shoot him in the head just because of what he’s become. He’s fresh from the grave; he’s in a very primitive state and needs brains to survive; it’s not his fault the kinds of brains he needs to live on are organic human ones.’ And it is not just in sympathizing with the zombie that Mitchell’s drama offers a novel take on the zombie narrative, but also in focusing not on the events of the zombie uprising itself, but on the aftermath, the point at which the zombie war has been overcome and humanity is attempting to rebuild itself. Specifically, Mitchell imagines a scientific ‘cure’ that positions zombie-ism as a neurological disorder, Previously Deceased Syndrome (PDS), that can be controlled through drugs injected into the spinal chord and a series of psychological therapies that helps zombies to start to feel (and to feel guilt) again.
In the Flesh’s hero, Kieren, is one of hundreds of zombies captured, rehabilitated and soon to be returned to their families and communities – the families and communities where they rose from the dead and went on a killing spree. The first three minutes of this clip from the first episode, in which Kieran’s parents travel to pick him up from the rehabilitation centre in Norfolk, epitomize the ways in which the series uses tropes from the zombie genre to explore the emotional experiences of loss and return.
In telling Kieran’s story, Mitchell is ultimately concerned with guilt and reconciliation. In describing the writing process he claims that the origins for the story came from an idea about ‘a young lad who had a psychotic episode, does something truly horrific in the rural community where he’s from and, after being treated, is sent back to face his parents and the awful thing he did whilst out of his mind’. This idea is neatly transposed into the post-zombie world of In the Flesh as we follow Kieran as he returns to the fictional small rural community of Roarton. This is a working class community scarred by the zombie apocalypse in which the inhabitants only survived through the actions of the vigilante group the ‘Human Volunteer Force’ (HVF). The series does explore the theme of humanity, asking who is more inhuman(e), zombie Kieran or the human survivors who persecute him on his return, but it is far more concerned with the theme of reconciliation both at the level of family and at the level of community; for Kieran’s outsider status extends beyond his position as a sufferer of PDS. As the series develops we learn that Kieran, struggling with his sexual identity, had a difficult relationship with the traditional working class community of Roarden even before he returned as a zombie. As such, zombie-ism here is used to explore the nature of being, and feeling, other. But more than this, as the series progresses (spoiler alert) we discover that Kieran’s death was far from natural. He committed suicide after discovering that Rick, his lover, had died from an IED in Afghanistan. Kieran’s guilt, therefore, is twofold – guilt for the deaths he caused in his untreated zombie state and for the pain he caused his family by taking his own life. In many ways it is this second theme that the series manages most successfully, in part because of the terrific break-through performance from Luke Newberry as Kieran. The final scenes in the third episode (48 minutes into the episode below) in which Kieran and his parents finally talk about his suicide offer a powerful and moving exploration of a difficult theme.
The showdown between Kieran and HVF leader Bill Macy (who happens to be the father of Kieran’s lover Rick) in the same episode tips more into melodrama, described in one review as ‘akin to an episode of Jeremy Kyle being played out live in a sitting room’. Although there are moments when the series’ emotional register plays a little too broadly, on the whole In the Flesh adopts a pared down aesthetic – shot in hues of grey and brown – more kitchen sink drama than the zombie gore-fest of The Walking Dead. It is also tinged with moments of dark comedy, epitomized in a series of government films offering advice to humans during the zombie uprising that were posted on the series’ website.
If The Walking Dead explores the loss of humanity through its focus on the survivors themselves, the zombie narrative provides a space for In the Flesh to explore how individuals, families and communities might attempt to rebuild in a world in which any clear lines between right and wrong, human and inhuman, alive and dead, have long been crossed.
This focus on the consequences of death on individuals, families and communities is at the heart of French drama Les Revenants (The Returned). The eight-part series follows the fate of a number of characters that return to their small Alpine community a number of years after having died with no apparent memory of their deaths.
In many ways it is wrong to class Les Revenants as a zombie narrative at all. The returning undead have none of the characteristics of the traditional zombie. When they return it is as if they had never died. As such, the themes of survival against an apocalyptic threat seen in The Walking Dead and In the Flesh are largely absent, particularly in the earlier episodes. Yet there are many similarities between Les Revenants and In the Flesh (and to a lesser extent The Walking Dead). In fact, what links all three series is a central concern with community and family in the wake of trauma. Les Revenants plays this out in complex ways through the narratives of a range of returning characters, but Camille and Simon offer good starting points for thinking this through.
Camille’s return is disruptive for her fragile family unit
Camille is a teenager killed in a bus accident along with many other children four years before her return. For her parents Claire and Jérôme (since separated under the weight of the tragedy) her return is a miracle, one that offers the potential of familial reconciliation, itself fraught because of Claire’s new relationship with local religious leader Pierre. It is a miracle that threatens not only the fragile familial structures surrounding Claire and Jérôme, but also the social ones as Camille is the only one of the children killed on the bus to return. While this isolates Claire from the community where she has attempted to find some solace, for the wider community burdened by the weight of such loss, Camille’s return is a further disruption as the other families are forced to confront their own loss over again. Meanwhile for Camille’s twin sister Léna, who only avoided dying in the bus accident by faking illness in order to sleep with her boyfriend (who it is implied was also the object of affection for Camille), Camille’s return exacerbates long-standing feelings of guilt.
Simon returns as a ghostly presence in the lives of Adèle and her daughter
Simon’s story in many ways mirrors Kieran’s from In the Flesh as he returns ten years after killing himself the night before his wedding to pregnant fiancé Adèle. Initially Adèle interprets Simon’s return as a ghostly apparition that she must put to rest as she prepares to marry her new boyfriend Thomas. Yet Simon cannot be put to rest (or killed) and his presence begins to threaten the fragile recovery that Adèle has made over the past decade.
As with both The Walking Dead and In the Flesh, then, Les Revenant explores the guilt of survival and the difficulty of reconciliation. The return of each character proves to be traumatic and disruptive for their families and the broader community. Unlike In the Flesh, there is no emotional catharsis or resolution offered, just the haunting sense that there is something profoundly wrong in this rural mountainous community.
The returned here are not flesh-eating zombies (with the exception of returned serial-killer Serge who literally eats the flesh of his victims), but their presence is potentially as disruptive. These are psychological, rather than physical zombies, whose presence eats away at the fragile (and often unsuccessful) attempts that each survivor has made to cope after the loss of their loved one. This is further exacerbated through the series’ suggestion that something supernatural is happening to the village, as the water level in the local reservoir gradually drops revealing hundreds of dead animals and the remains of the old village, as characters who attempt to escape with returnees find themselves impossibly unable to do so, and as hordes of the returned are discovered to be living in the forests. Les Revenants refuses to offer any explanations for these occurrences. Indeed the tone of the series is deeply uncanny and melancholic. The series is beautifully shot with a mesmerizing score from Scottish band Mogwai. The first four minutes of this clip from the beginning of episode one (unfortunately only available online in French, but, tellingly, the dialogue is minimal) gives a good indication of the ways in which the series is centrally concerned with the atmosphere that it creates through complex cinematography and haunting music.
The result is a deeply unsettling series in which the town (and its community) itself emerges as a place that is intensely uncanny. As the series progresses and it is suggested that the hordes of undead are those who died in the flooding of the old village in the 1970s, one begins to suspect that perhaps it is the town itself that is returning from the (un)dead in this series.
Each of these three series has quite a distinct tone and feel, from the melodramatic gore-fest of The Walking Dead which constantly ratchets up the pain and turmoil to ask how far humanity can be pushed, to the sensitive and sometimes darkly comic social realism of In the Flesh which offers a very humane exploration of what it might feel like to return from the dead, to the unsettling and haunting melancholia of Les Revenants. Yet, across all three series, the zombie narrative is evoked and (to varying degrees) disrupted in a recurring exploration of guilt, loss and community. Fittingly for three series about return, each series will be coming back for more, with season 4 of The Walking Dead just started on Fox in the UK and AMC in the US, and both In the Flesh and Les Revenants renewed for second series. It seems that for the immediate future at least, the undead will return again – and I can’t wait.
Catherine Johnson is Associate Professor in Film and Television at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television (Routledge, 2012) and Telefantasy (British Film Institute, 2005) and the co-editor of Transnational Television History (Routledge, 2012) and ITV Cultures: independent television over fifty years (Open University Press, 2005). She is currently working on a co-authored book (with Paul Grainge) titled The Promotional Screen Industries (Routledge).