Zombie Noir...ish

There is a rising (pun intended) trend in television at the moment – the dead are returning to life, and they’re not just driven by a desire to eat human flesh any more. They reappear fully functioning and mostly aware of their identities. People of all ages and all time periods, the returned are popping up in small country towns across the globe, wreaking (emotional) havoc on the living. Three recent examples of this are Les Revenants, the seminal 2012 French show that arguably began this whole shebang, the U.S.’s 2014 addition Resurrection, and Australia’s recent Glitch (late to the party as always, Australia). Each show has a strikingly similar premise – a small country town is visited by its dead. There’s a policeman and talk of God on the periphery, a murder victim seeking justice, and resurrected lovers fight with living spouses. None of the returned can leave, forcing them to confront their experiences within a confined space.

On paper, this premise sounds very noir. There is a mystery at the heart of this idea, what brought these people back? Layered over this is the word ‘why’, which can be uttered over and over again. Why these people? Why this place? Why now? There is morality to be questioned, crime to solve, policemen to brood, old wounds of the heart to reopen.

In practice, none of these shows play out as noir. They function as ensemble pieces, rotating around pure emotional reaction rather than existential mystery. Minor characters question whether this is the work of God or the Devil, and those with medical training run insufficient tests, but such things are a cursory wave of the hand to expected process rather than steps taken to unravel the truth. The centre of engagement is instead the anti-closure of the return, the personal responses to the undoing of the universal: death. Each show presents characters trying to desperately grab back onto what they had worked so hard to let go, in an intensely uncomfortable reversal of catharsis. By the end of each show’s first season, nothing has been resolved.

Glitch really undermines itself by stranding its characters without emotional or narrative resolution, especially since the series is comprised of only six hour long episodes and was released all at once via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (the ABC, the country’s tax payer funded media network) streaming service, iView.

 

The series had been drafted by late 2012, when Les Revenants had just finished airing and Resurrection was announced. Due to a notorious lack of funding in the Australian film and television industry however, Glitch took three more years to air. In interviews, writer and producer Lou Fox admits to fearing that the show tapped into the premise a little too late – ‘at one stage I did think, “oh my god, it’s going to be impossible to make Glitch now because there are so many other shows like it in the world”’. Despite this, the ABC stood behind the show, determined to make ‘the Australian version’.

It is the Australian version, really. It’s a hard thing to quantify, outside of the surface level signals, like the accents and the distinct dry green landscape. Set in the fictional Victorian country town of Yoorana, a trade town near the Goldfields, Glitch captures the ‘Australian Gothic’, that slow paced yet high strung story trapped in a landscape of half-history, a white settlement barely 150 years old smothering 40,000 years of indigenous cultures. Even the title, Glitch, an error or an anomaly, carries more subtlety than the more straight forward titles of Les Revenants and Resurrection. The tension of not belonging, and the quest for control over a foreign nature, are amplified and symbolised by the returned. Each personal drama and internal conflict overwhelms the greater mystery. Perhaps that’s why Fox and her fellow writers left the show on a cliff-hanger reveal that relates to the premise rather than the characters; by the final episode, the characters’ conflicts have bled into the premise. It is still a somewhat frustrating end, especially if you’ve just binged the whole six episodes with the knowledge that a second season is yet to be confirmed. Australian producers are usually a little more cautious with their story arcs for this very reason, presenting smaller, more complete narratives rather than larger multi-seasonals. For an Australian audience at least, Glitch didn’t even necessarily need to resolve its mysteries. The human drama could’ve carried the show through even if the returned had simply disappeared at the end of season one. Instead, it yanks itself back towards the unknown.

Resurrection (confusingly produced by the American ABC studios) is based on Jason Mott’s novel ‘The Returned’. Omar Epps stars as Marty, an ex-cop turned immigration detective (television seems to be rapidly running out of different types of policeman) tasked with returning a young boy named Jacob to his family in Arcadia, Missouri, after the child was found in a rice field in China. Except it turns out that Jacob has been dead for thirty years. Cue curiosity, family secrets, and a cute doctor (played by Devin Kelley) with whom Epps has zero romantic chemistry (but quite solid platonic banter). It’s a slick production that seems to just be going through the movements. The small town is wary of outsiders, a detective interferes outside his jurisdiction, people are rightly afraid of the mob mentality, the military are a wild card.  

Really though, this premise sifted through a standard formula still says something about America, even as it weakly echoes predecessors like Twin Peaks. Despite, or perhaps because of, the straight up expositional dialogue, Resurrection reinforces the idea that there is a paper thin veneer covering the lives of ordinary Americans just waiting to be torn off to reveal deep wells of pain and ambivalence. Parent/child relationships are motivating features for almost all the characters. There is a general belief in God, and the importance of church as a place of community that fosters both safety and fear is reflected in several episodes. The mystery of the returned, and conflicting desire to uncover why and how while keeping their existence a secret, is much more important to the characters than it is to those in Glitch and Les Revenants.

While equally as violent as its counterparts, Resurrection seems far more aggressive, perhaps because it moves at a much faster pace. Emotions run high, but the show doesn’t give the characters space to wallow in the existential mess of the dead returning, there are far too many other motivations at play. Like the French show, Resurrection introduces a far greater number of returned towards the end of the season. Personal reactions become overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the event, with the audience tethered to Jacob and his story as a point of empathy.

Les Revenants is a little harder to define as particularly ‘French’, mostly because I am not French and French pop culture is less pervasive than American. Even so, the show does seem to carry many hallmarks of the culture, from the slightly fragmented manner in which each character’s story is presented to the cinematography and the languid strength of the supernatural. Based on a film of the same name, Les Revenants centres around a small group of returned, including Camille, a 15 year old twin whose sister is now four years older than her, Simon, a groom who died on his wedding day, and a strange, unidentifiable boy who attaches himself to a nurse. They each attempt to resume their lives despite time and their own passing.

The show is far eerier than its English language variants. There are more out of kilter things present, including several power outages and strange occurrences. The extent of each of the returned’s memories of their lives is drastically different. While in Glitch and Resurrection normalcy seems ever present, lurking tantalisingly just beyond the grasp of the main characters, it is immediately clear the town of Les Revenants will never be the same again. The atmosphere of the show is by far the most fearful, in part because the violence is less ‘guns blazing’ and more ‘gut wrenching’ (sometimes literally). God and religious community isn’t portrayed as a community staple, but rather something to which people turn in times of grief.

All three shows share another obviously not-noir feature. Visually, they’re all highly saturated, although to very different effects. Glitch’s yellows, browns and dying greens shine through to accentuate the dry bush without pushing it into ‘outback’ territory (rural Victoria is very far from Central Australia), while Les Revenants dips into dark blues and watery greens to make its forest and dam oppressive, warring landscapes.

Interestingly, not one of the shows gives its returned insight into the afterlife. The existential questions have been asked, but not answered. At least, not by the end of season one.