ZOMBIE FRENCH EATERS
Director: Robin Aubert
Screenplay: Robin Aubert
Review: David Stephens
Don’t confuse this film with the same-named quirky cannibal offering from 1999, which starred Robert Carlyle’s distractingly huge fake nose. “Ravenous” (aka: “Les Affames”… which actually means “The Hungry” for those of a pedantic nature) is a French-language Canadian horror film directed by Robin Aubert. Netflix purchased the rights to the film after an enviable run on the festival circuit, where it picked up a lot of positive feedback and won the Toronto International Film Festival Award for Best Canadian Film. It’s also played at pretty much every genre festival including Sitges, Fantastic Fest, and Frightfest. Ostensibly a zombie apocalypse movie set in the rural areas of Quebec; it depicts the plight of a handful of Canadian survivors during the (presumably) global wide extinction event. Now streaming on Netflix in the US and the UK, YGROY takes a look at the latest entry in the sub-genre that remains as impervious to death as its antagonists do…
It starts in the rural outskirts of a remote town in Quebec, with a number of short sequences depicting the situations the cast find themselves in. A girl suddenly tears the throat out of a victim at a stock-car race. A middle-aged man runs into a forest chased by speedy howling assailants. A boy leaves freshly-dug graves to wander into the fields with a shotgun. A distraught housewife (Brigitte Poupart as Céline) decapitates a man with a machete. And two affable hunters (Marc-André Grondin as Bonin & Didier Lucien as Vézina) crack blue jokes, before driving off and leaving a pile of burnt corpses behind them. As we gradually learn, there has been some kind of unexplained outbreak that leaves its victims as flesh-eating maniacs that hurtle after the uninfected with savage glee and much shouting, although it’s left vague as to whether they actually die or not. As per usual rules in a post-apocalypse world, bites cause victims to “turn” and they’re attracted by the sight and sound of those still normal. So the various plot strands start to converge, and a rag-tag group of unlikely survivors stumble across the abandoned countryside and homes, looking for some form of salvation. But the behaviour of the Infected starts to take a strange turn, and survival looks less likely than ever…
What you’re really looking at here is an amalgamation of “The Walking Dead” (deserted woodlands and empty roads) and “28 Days Later” (speedy “zombies” out for blood). But it’s also dosed with plenty of art-house leanings and is far more ponderous and less dynamic than those examples. Despite the usual basic tropes (bites infect, flesh-eating, sounds attract, etc.), the plot looks at wider themes and takes a slightly more unorthodox look at the Armageddon, rather than just an ongoing escape-from-the-undead motif. It drifts towards “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and threatens to enter new territories at times. This is the main reason why it’s picked up so much acclaim from critics and various sources. But we’ll be honest and say that it didn’t quite work for us…
Starting with the positives… The cinematography is great and the remoteness of the Quebec countryside is suitably eerie and evocative, especially when covered with flowing mists. The cast all work well together with even the youngest actor (Charlotte St-Martin as Zoé) doing some very creditable work indeed. There are some excellent sequences, which invites comparisons with the “28 Days” films, especially one scene where a desperate escape attempt segues into a breakneck fight for survival in a twilight-lit forest, with a neat use for mousetraps ramping up the tension at one point. There are also some shocking surprise deaths and (at the risk of sounding basic) a superb exploding head. There’s a real feeling of emptiness and solitude that many other lower-budget zombie films have failed to capture as well, and the Infected always remain a constant and credible threat.
But alongside that, there are some issues that derailed the experience for us slightly. Whilst the origin of the plague is never explained, that’s something which has been acceptable in many other similar films. But here, the Infected’s behaviour shifts dramatically at convenient points. Initially they sprint towards their victims in an animalistic fashion which is a predictable and appropriate reaction. But at odd times they are apparently capable of advanced reasoning, they can apparently sneak up on victims without noise (NB: Like the bloody T-Rex in “Jurassic Park”), and even “bait” prospective food-sources into ambushes. None of this is ever explained or alluded to. At the midway mark, they also start to exhibit some baffling actions (which we won’t spoil), which could’ve opened up into a juicy exploration of their thought patterns and suchlike. It does make for some unsettling scenes, but it’s never expanded beyond the off-kilter visual impact. Apparently it alludes to social identity issues and creeps into a possible nascent “religion”, but the sheer ambiguity of it all just jars a bit.
Although there are a few moments of humour – “No wonder you prefer Roger Moore to Sean Connery” – for the most part the film is dour and kind of depressing. Characters often put themselves in harm’s way for no good reason (albeit with one death having a satisfying dose of karma) and are prone to spurt out existential dialogue at the most inappropriate times. Sometimes it feels like one of those earlier episodes of “The Walking Dead” that focused on a member of the cast that nobody really gave a damn about, or featured a distressing death just to provoke a reaction. There are plenty of speech-free scenes that get punctuated by shrill howling and/or screaming. And there are also several minute-long sequences that outstay their welcome; a character taking forever to open a door, a pan across the forest with uninterrupted screeching, and a pickle-munching break where everybody just gives the stink-eye to each other.
It all ends with a pointless bit of book-ending, tons of unanswered questions, and a bizarre post-credit sequence. Don’t get us wrong, we like zombie films that try and do something different. We loved Jeremy Gardner’s “The Battery” for example. But despite some real skill with the camera and certain compelling sequences, it left us a little cold. The director cites the work of Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky as influences for the film, and that’s easy to see in hindsight. But without a little more warmth and humour, it slides towards pretentiousness at times and feels a little aimless. It has things to say, but it whispers them and it doesn’t really mix with the usual zombie apocalypse tropes.
That’s obviously just us though, and plenty of other critics seem to love it (currently 88% on Rotten Tomatoes). If you’re in the market for an unorthodox takes on a well-worn sub-genre, then it may well work for you. Don’t expect it to be a ray of sunshine or a rampant bit of exploitation cinema though. Not for us, but it has its moments and undead completists will want to check it out. Maim Canada.