Warning: this article contains spoilers for Les affamés.
Independent Canadian cinema is arguably at its best when it comes out of Quebec. Les affamés (Ravenous) is a good case study as to why. The indie zombie flick, given to us by Robin Aubert, took home the prize for best Canadian feature at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a rare honour for a horror film, rarer still for a horror film taking a stab at the cult genre that looks at a zombie apocalypse.
Of course anyone planning to take in the movie should be warned: those used to The Walking Dead and Resident Evil as their only reference and access point to the genre will likely bounce off of Les affamés. Aubert’s work is not a stock action movie nor does it aspire to be. Aubert is that sadly rare director of horror who obsesses over studying his monsters, not merely having them wreak havoc. The time and dedication shows.
The film follows Bonin, played by Marc-André Grondin, as he stumbles along with a group of survivors in rural Quebec. His bright yellow shirt, wire rimmed glasses and scruffy-neat facial hair serve as a perfect anchor to a film with serious cinematic ambitions. Through Bonin’s eyes and humour — always landing somewhere between dad jokes and inappropriately crude — we see a ravaged Quebec meant to stand in as a metaphor for the political overtones of the real place it’s set in.
The film is light on plot. There is some objective the group is meant to accomplish — moving from one place to another. What’s important is not the narrative arc but instead how Aubert trains his lens on the creatures at its centre. He does so in an almost obsessive and compulsive manner, like an anthropologist studying a culture he’s desperate to understand.
While the film is full of the traditional horrors we attribute to zombies, like survivors being pinned down and eaten alive by the uncanny animated carcuses of people they once considered neighbors, it’s at its most terrifying when it’s simply watching the zombies exist without provocation.
The creatures stand out from other zombies by remaining eerily human sans decay, and also retaining the ability to participate in terrifying primal screaming. They assemble and collect everyday items and build towers to what one can only imagine is meant to worship some unknown god. In doing so we aren’t forced to see the creatures merely as some environmental hazard that must be overcome by the protagonists but instead an organized collective with motivations beyond our comprehension. It’s a brilliant tactic that infuses our fear of being eaten alive with a shrill xenophobia we can’t quite articulate.
Earlier this year I wrote about The Cured, another zombie movie looking to break through the traditional tropes of zombie fiction by depicting characters who were themselves the creatures, and were brought back through an antidote. In this too, the audience was forced to spend time thinking about the monsters as opposed to simply thinking about how to survive them.
At its core, a monster movie, whether it’s focused on zombies, or aliens, or even a mermaid (such as Guillermo del Toro’s latest film The Shape of Water, currently up as a contender for 13 Oscars) is using a metaphor to try and say something. The zombie genre got its start in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, a flick set in rural Pennsylvania that had zombies demonstrate the impending and creeping angst associated with The Vietnam War. T’Cha Dunlevy of the Montreal Gazette lapses praise on La affamés for its commentary on contemporary Quebec society.
When a monster exists to make a point, granting the audience time to properly contemplate and be horrified by it is the key to drive it home. In that, Aubert has struck the right chord.
Les affamés is available for pre-order on iTunes.
TIFF Top Ten ran from Jan. 12 to the 21.