There are no “boo” moments in They Came Back, it’s only a slow creeping dread… an anxiety that invades the core of your soul. It’s been described as a quiet zombie movie, as when the dead return, they are not clamouring for brains or flesh, they want their lives back… or at least WE feel as though that’s what they are searching for.
One day people who have died within the last ten years walk out of the cemetery, looking as if they haven’t missed a day… most, even, healthier than before their death. They are dressed in light colours, and their expressionless faces seem clean and almost angelic. No one quite knows how to deal with the mass influx of people, and cannot even begin to understand how to react to the event.
The film can be seen as an allegory for immigration or the struggles of minority groups, as first accepted, the non-dead soon are segregated and relegated to the shadows, because of apparent differences and peculiarities. Obviously, one can understand the unwariness one would have with the ones that come back, but the way they allow paranoia take over is troubling and illogical.
People never question the dead on what they experienced, or make any concrete search for the reason they have returned. Perhaps, it is fear of knowing… the fact that the dead remain so unchanged might be evidence enough that there is no “life after death”, as we understand it. There is only an overwhelming emptiness that completely consumes their semblance of humanity. Though the dead have memories and thoughts, they are abstracted from our reality. Theories emerge that even their daily interactions, expressions and emotions are only a reflection of those that surround them, or a previous life.
The film never fully dwells into why any of this is happening, and that increases the discomfort in the audience. We want to know, but also understand… that the people of the world, though perhaps curious, are far too afraid and shocked to ask that kind of question.
What is troubling, is the dead seem to have a plan… nothing sinister, but it seems to be a plan for escape. They meet up in groups at all times of the day, and the only thing they are curious about… are underground passages and dark places to hide. When they do finally make their break, none able to resist the compulsion to “move”, the whole film comes full circle.
The most interesting storyline, for me, was that of couple, Mathieu and Rachel. He had died in a car accident searching for her after an argument, and was dead two years before his “return”. She seemed unwilling to search for him, or even hope that he had returned. Something about Mathieu is different than the other dead, perhaps it was the lack of resolve in his own death, he keeps running through the events of that day, unable to make sense of them, and truly unable to advance his understanding in any way. Even when she finally accepts him, there is that coldness… and that dread that pervades their relationship. They even make love, but it isn’t titillating or even alive… it is a routine, a momentarily comforting one for Rachel, but you understand that there is no renewed passion for Mathieu. He is no longer the person she knew, and nothing will ever be the same.