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The Returned is the stunningly eerie French zombie series you didn’t know you needed

Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Halloween is fast approaching, and between the impending sugar crash and the glut of truly awful costumes, there are countless opportunities to watch something scary. If you're tired of the usual slasher movies, though, allow us to suggest something different: The little-watched but excellent French series The Returned should be at the top of your list.

The 2012 show was created by Fabrice Gobert, based on a 2004 film called They Came Back (the series and movie have the same title in French, Les Revenants). The first season centers on a small mountain town that descends into chaos after five dead people come back to life, with no memory of being dead or of how much time has passed. Each episode is titled after one of the returned, and explores the cracks their reappearance make in the lives of the people around them.

Season one, which is available on Netflix, won an International Emmy for Best Drama Series (and even spawned an American remake, which aired on A&E earlier this year but was canceled after one season). The second season of the French series premieres on SundanceTV on Halloween, and with just eight hour-long episodes in season one, this weekend is an excellent time to discover the show. Here are three reasons to make The Returned your weekend binge-watch.

It touches on many different horror genres

What's better for pre-Halloween viewing than a series that comprises tropes from practically every horror genre? There's zombie movies, obviously (while the people who've come back from the dead don't ooze or eat brains, they do seem to enjoy standing around menacingly in packs). There's body horror, as when one character discovers an old wound on her back reopening, and some of the returned start to seem, ahem, a little less than daisy fresh. There's suspense in the heavy, creeping unease that descends on the whole town, and in weird happenings like animals drowning themselves in the waters of a slowly draining reservoir. There are even some straightforward slasher-movie scares.

Child standing behind woman at bus stop.
And, naturally, there is a creepy child.

But above all, The Returned is a twist on the old-fashioned ghost story. Traditionally, ghosts, as Todd VanDerWerff put it, serve as "a way of making the story's psychological subtext into text, the lurching reminders of the past that threaten to uncover long-buried secrets." The Returned instead drags those secrets violently out of the shadows and forces its characters to reckon with them. It's survivor's guilt in the extreme; the houses of the living were already haunted, and now that the ghosts have become flesh and blood again, both living and dead have to confront the reality that the world has kept turning whether they wanted it to or not.

It doesn't try to solve its own mysteries

One of the best things about the show is that it's not so much concerned with the why or the how of what's happening, so much as with the what now? Where other shows might get bogged down in trying to explain every twist and turn, The Returned lets its viewers and characters live in the dark — sometimes literally (blackouts seem to be a side effect of reanimation). There's no particular pattern to who suddenly shows up, ravenously hungry, on their loved ones' doorsteps: a teenage girl, a silent little boy, a groom who died on his wedding day, a long-deceased wife. There's no explanation for why one mother's dead child returns but not another's.

Instead, the show wants to explore the question: How would you react if a dead loved one was suddenly returned to you? Would you turn to religion, to a psychiatrist, to vodka? Would you shut out the possibility, or would you simply accept it as a miracle, even as it became clear there's something a little ... off about the person?

It is, after all, a wrenching question. And it grounds the supernatural happenings in real, human emotion, so that even when things go off the rails, it's easy to stay invested in what the hell is going to happen to these characters.

The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous

Yes, this show has subtitles — but don't let them distract you from just how beautiful the whole series is. Director/creator Fabrice Gobert’s shots are almost geometric in their precision, emphasizing the contrast between light and dark and using sharp lines to slice the frame into segments, separating characters from one another and, often, the living from the dead.

Boy and woman separated by a wall
Separated, and it feels so bad.

The lack of exposition only adds power to the visuals; Gobert presents these eerie images without a lot of explanation, giving them a haunting power that lingers long after the episodes end.

deer floating in lake
Why did this deer drown itself? Who cares! Look how spooky it is.

The second season debuts on Halloween night

Here's an exclusive clip from season two, which debuts on SundanceTV October 31 at 10 pm. It picks up six months after the end of the first season; in the clip we see a girl named Audrey freaking out as returning characters Camille and her mother, Claire, try to quiet her so that "they" don't come — apparently to no avail.

The Returned season two begins Saturday, October 31, at 10 pm on SundanceTV. The first season is available on Netflix.

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