Guest Post: When is a zombie not a zombie?

Guest Post: When is a zombie not a zombie? by Seth Patrick

You must have noticed it. In zombie movies, the word ‘zombie’ is often treated like a swear word.
In Sean of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost joke about not using the Z-word; in World War Z, the military use the term ‘Zack’ instead. 

In The Walking Dead too, the Z-word is avoided, calling them ‘Walkers’. The intention, according to series producer Robert Kirkman, was that the world of The Walking Dead is like our own except that nobody ever came up with the concept of zombies – at  least not in the George Romero sense. It’s a hard thing to pull off without it just seeming like the characters have really not been paying attention all their lives.

This whole idea even has its own entry in TVTropes:

In the French TV series The Returned (my novelisation has just been released, plug plug), people living in a remote Alpine town are, shall we say, somewhat put out when dead relatives reappear on their doorsteps, alive and well and without any memory of dying. 

The question is, do they count as zombies? Well, here they do use the Z-word, even having one of the undead characters mention it, wondering if that’s what she is, frightened for herself, frightened for her family.

Yet The Returned isn’t really about zombies. It plays around with the idea, certainly – some of those who’ve come back from the dead seem to be in a degenerate state, and the others may not be far behind – but The Returned harks back to a much older fear.

The original French title of the show is ‘Les Revenants’ – ‘The  Returned’ is a literal translation, but ‘revenant’ is a word that’s been in English usage for a few hundred years. The non-supernatural meaning is someone who has returned, especially after a long absence. The supernatural meaning is someone who has returned from the dead, be it as a ghost or animated corpse.

What, then, is the big difference between a revenant and a zombie? 

Zombies have lost their identity. They are feral, remorseless and inhuman. They want your brain, but it’s nothing personal.

A revenant is entirely personal. The reasons for coming back are specific, and often vengeful. And while the revenant may indeed be a terrifying creature, it is terrifying precisely because the intelligence and personality of the deceased remain. 

So no, The Returned is not about zombies. Here, if the dead want to do you harm, it’s for a reason. They know who you are. They know what you did. And by God, maybe you even deserve what’s coming.

The root of the show (and the book) lies in the classic tradition of the ghost story, and carries a moral that chills more deeply than the idea of mindless corpses rising from the grave:
You cannot escape your mistakes, even when they – or you – are dead and buried. 

About the author:

Seth Patrick was born in Northern Ireland. An Oxford mathematics graduate, he spent the last decade working as a programmer in an award-winning games company before becoming a full-time writer. He lives in England with his wife and two young children. Reviver, his debut novel, is the first in a trilogy. Film rights have been optioned by Legendary Pictures, the company behind Inception and Man of Steel. 

Find out more about Seth Patrick on his blog or follow him on twitter: @SethPatrickUK


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