It’s not every day that you have the chance to screen a Quebec zombie film. Outside of Cronenberg’s oeuvre in the 70s, horror films were once a rarity in Canadian cinema. Now they’re becoming increasingly common on the film festival circuit (this makes sense considering that the commercial viability of the genre remains one of the few box office success stories in the last few years). As it stands I’m seeing no less than three Canadian horror films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, so look for reviews of The Crescent and Pyewacket later this week.
Les Affamés (Ravenous in English) is a unique, albeit simplistic take on the zombie film. Writer/director Robin Aubert makes the bold choice to start his film in media res and, more significantly, to completely forego any kind of explanation about what happened. In Les Affamés the world has already fallen to zombies and answers about the origin of the infection and the state of the cities, the government and the military are briefly speculated on but never glimpsed. Aubert explained before the screening that he likes working in rural settings, so the action takes place entirely in Northern Quebec where the run down cottages, abandoned back highways, gas stations, industrial bunkers and dense wilderness lend the film a unique visual sense.
Where the film will lose some viewers is the general lack of plot. The first few scenes introduce us to a random selection of survivors: Bonin (Marc-André Grondin), our de facto lead; Tania (Monia Takri), a scared woman who has been bitten (by what is uncertain); a kick ass business woman (Brigitte Poupart); Ti-Cul (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), a young farm boy who has killed his parents; a pair of elderly lesbians (Marie-Ginette Guay and Michelin Lanctôt); and a young mysterious girl named Zoé (Charlotte St-Martin). It takes nearly half of the film’s runtime to bring the various characters together (we barely even know most of their names) and the plot centers exclusively around finding the next safe refuge. The result is, at times, a road trip zombie film without a destination. The fact that the search for safety never truly amounts to anything is a testament to the film’s bleak, nihilistic point of view, but it also makes the 96-minute runtime feel much longer.
Thankfully Les Affamés has a unique setting, interesting zombies, and a dark sense of humor to carry it through. Aubert makes particularly strong use of the woods, which are featured in multiple scenes to create a foreboding sense of isolation. The dark forest is also a playground on which the zombies chase survivors. In fact, the film’s single best action sequence occurs when a horde of zombies chase our protagonists through the woods in the middle of the night; the editing and lack of light (it actually looks like it was shot in the dead of night) create a dizzying disorientation effect that made my adrenaline spike.
The visual look of the zombies, meanwhile, doesn’t offer anything new to the genre, but their actions – which includes high pitched screaming, a tendency to stand in a trance and a propensity to gather like-minded objects in tall towers – certainly makes them memorable. A little more clarity about the nature of the infection itself would have been helpful (the time from bite to conversion varies wildly) though this is hardly a deal breaker. As for the comedy, Les Affamés isn’t afraid to offer up some gallows humor to go with the proceedings. Bonin earns his reputation by telling a variety of amusing “bad” jokes and a recurring sight gag pays off in spades the third time around, so much so that the entire theatre collectively burst out laughing.
Ultimately, Les Affamés may be a little too familiar for mainstream horror audiences. Those who are fond of unique quirks and are willing to let a film chart its own path, however, will benefit from seeking it out.