Zombie movies are at the point now where even zombie movie reviews are starting to feel tired. They'll start out with a paragraph like this one, a disclaimer that the film being examined is just like every other zombie flick - except in the ways that it isn't. For some reason, reviewers refuse to address the zombie genre like any other - whether because of its lean on tangible elements, or because of personal burnout. Then, on occasion, a review overstates a zombie film's genre reinvention, setting up unrealistic expectations for everyone.
So I'm not going to try to convince you that Les Affamés (The Ravenous), by Québécois director Robin Aubert, turns the zombie genre on its head. Its location - rural Quebec - doesn't really do it, though I'm sure it's laden with regional specificity that goes over my head. Its overall story arc - a group of survivors wandering in search of hope - evokes some of The Walking Dead's worst tendencies. But there's enough going on in Les Affamés, and enough style in its execution, to make it a worthwhile watch even among the genre glut.
Like many zombie films, Les Affamés follows a structure wherein a group of survivors assembles, searches for salvation, then gets picked off one by one. C.R.A.Z.Y.'s Marc-André Grondin is the requisite grizzled survivor and ostensible protagonist, driving his pickup truck in search of hope. Other key characters include an upper-middle class machete-wielding warrior; a laconic hipster carrying an accordion and nursing a “dog bite”; an older gentleman of quiet, grave intelligence; a farm kid who killed his parents; a delightful pair of rural old ladies; and the film's true centre, young orphan girl Zoe.
You already know how this is gonna go. Characters get bitten, hide their wounds, and turn. Other characters grow paranoid and become threats from within. Presumed safehouses turn out not to be safe at all. There are a few notable sequences that stand out - a shocking opening on a racetrack, a suspenseful standoff with some suspicious zombies, a mist-shrouded horde attack, a surprisingly quiet climax - but the overall trajectory is exactly what you'd expect. That's genre for you.
As stock as some of its situations may be, Les Affamés does offer innovation to call its own. Its zombies’ screams in and of themselves may not be new, but these don't sound like screams of aggression; they're screams of pain and grief. As in Return of the Living Dead, it hurts to be dead; unlike that movie's goofy brain-eaters, these zombies play that idea seriously. They also hold on to elements of their old lives, in a manner far more unusual than the clumsy half-remembered way Romero zombies reenact their old habits. When they're not chasing after people, these zombies congregate and, compelled by some unseen force, build towering stacks of formerly everyday objects. Standing dozens of feet tall, these stacks serve no purpose but to be stared at by other zombies - a chilling, surreal image, and I guess one laden with commentary on materialism, if you're into that.
Perhaps the most endearing element of Les Affamés is its commitment to following just a handful of simple, effective plot motors. The main character arcs all align pretty well, and each one has clear setups and payoffs - including a great running gag I won't spoil whose punchline comes unexpectedly and satisfyingly. And overall, there's a classy elegance to the film's photography and editing, lending it a deliberate, measured pace that unlike many zombie films doesn't devolve into a frenzy when the carnage starts. The violence here isn't gleeful, but mournful; the tone not savage, but eerie - all without skimping on blood. An impressive balancing act.
Les Affamés doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it doesn't even spin the existing one all that fast. But that's kind of its charm: despite dragging at times, it's a thoughtfully-shot zombie flick with an indie feel, bringing the undead to Quebec with unexpected sincerity. Its satisfying, hopeful ending helps, too. Sometimes, all you need from a genre film is something well-made that does what it says it’ll do with a sprinkling of style. Les Affamés is one of those films: hard to rave about, but equally hard to criticise. For treating its zombies as sources of dread, though, rather than gore-gag factories, it deserves a full serving of praise. Eat up.