Saturday, March 3, 2018


(Canada/France - 2017; US release 2018)

Written and directed by Robin Aubert. Cast: Marc-Andre Grondin, Monia Chokri, Micheline Lanctot, Marie-Ginette Guay, Brigitte Poupart, Charlotte St-Martin, Edouard Tremblay-Grenier, Luc Proulx, Patrick Hivon, Didier Lucier, Robert Brouillette, Martin Heroux. (Unrated, 103 mins)

At this point, is there anything innovative that can be done with the concept of the zombie apocalypse? Sure, there's an occasional TRAIN TO BUSAN or THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS that showcase some unique ideas in its narrative but ultimately, they all end up at the same place. The Quebecois, French-language LES AFFAMES, now making its US debut as a Netflix Original film under the title THE RAVENOUS, takes the somber, arthouse approach and is more concerned with creating an appropriately bleak and very downbeat mood (other than one darkly humorous running gag that does succeed in lightening things up a little). The story follows several people who connect and eventually end up at an isolated farmhouse: Bonin (Marc-Andre Grondin) just had to kill his best friend Vezina (Didier Lucier) after he was bit, the two lifelong chums busting each others' chops to the end (Vezina: "No wonder you prefer Roger Moore over Sean Connery"); Celine (Brigitte Poupart), who periodically stops her car and cranks the radio to attract a zombie just so she can let off some steam by hacking it apart with a machete; Tania (Monia Chokri), who's freed by Bonin after he finds her tied to a bed as a precaution after she's bitten by a dog; aging insurance salesman Real (Luc Proulx), who buddies up with shotgun-toting teenager Ti-Cul (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier), bonding over the sad fact that they had to slaughter their turned families; and Zoe (Charlotte St-Martin), a little girl apparently orphaned and taken in by Bonin and Tania after they hit the road. Bonin, Tania, Zoe, and Celine all find refuge at the home of Bonin's mother Pauline (Micheline Lanctot) and her partner Therese (Marie Ginette-Guay). Once they realize the house is in the direct path of an approaching horde of zombies, they abruptly flee, eventually encountering Real and Ti-Cul as they desperately try to reach another safe area.

There's a few scattered bits of splattery zombie mayhem, usually in the form of a shotgun blast to the head, but Aubert isn't really interested in that. When someone gets infected and has to be killed, it usually happens offscreen. We only see the aftermath of some of the attacks. And the zombies have some human qualities that Aubert never really fully explores: they can feel physical and emotional pain (when Celine kills one zombie, its child shows up looking bereaved and devastated), and they can think (there's one creepy bit where a zombie child has camouflaged itself in some trees waiting to attack Vezina). Aubert's bigger concern is presenting the new reality of these characters, like the need to keep quiet, as even the slightest noise or movement is enough to attract an infected (this same idea is central to the upcoming A QUIET PLACE). The focus on the day-to-day, hour-by-hour survival recalls last year's divisive IT COMES AT NIGHT, and there's the obvious shout-outs to George Romero (thanked in the closing credits) and some ambient soundscapes that are reminiscent of THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, but Aubert has more cineaste aspirations. He captures some effectively eerie images of endless fields and dirt roads in rural Quebec, with several long, static, almost still-life shots, surreal imagery and, later, a fog-choked finale--things that qualify as total Andrei Tarkovsky or Michelangelo Antonioni hero worship or possibly an homage to the prog rock album cover artwork of Storm Thorgerson.

Despite all the arthouse smoke and mirrors, at the end of the day, LES AFFAMES is still pretty much LE WALKING DEAD--just another zombie apocalypse movie, no matter how hypnotic it gets on occasion. It still requires its characters to do stupid things, and has too many predictable jump scares where people are standing there, looking around, camera panning to the left, to the right, to the left, and then a zombie appearing on the next pan back to the right, or a zombie jumping into the frame to scare someone who, logically, should've seen them approaching since it's nothing but open space around them (this Sergio Leone trick and the left-right pans are repeated a few times). The film received significant acclaim in French-Canadian circles, earning five Canadian Screen nominations (Canada's equivalent to the Oscars), including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Poupart, who does get one really good scene where she expresses disgust with herself for still being alive only because she went to get a manicure while her husband and three kids were killed by attacking zombies who barged into their house while she was gone. Ultimately, LES AFFAMES is a mixed bag. It has its points of interest and gets a boost from some arresting imagery, but the references and the homages sometimes get a little too cute and self-satisfied, and Aubert needed to do some deeper exploration with the notion of what makes these zombies different from all their other genre brethren.

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