Mist obscures a field. Next, at a racetrack, a driver is making out with his girlfriend near his car when a young girl appears behind them, studying the woman intently. Without warning the girl cries out and leaps at the woman’s throat, biting into her flesh. We cut away to the deceptively sleepy Quebec countryside, where we’re introduced to disparate characters and their eventually convergent quest to stay alive amid a zombie apocalypse.
I’ve never seen an episode of The Walking Dead and I’m not an avid watcher of zombie flicks. This diet, low in the living dead, may have enhanced my viewing experience of this intriguing but uneven French-language film directed by the Canadian filmmaker Robin Aubert. I say this because I’m not sure how much newness there is here to justify recommending the movie to hardened zombie or horror fans in general. Perhaps its storytelling style—long, steady, naturalistic shots, with plenty of “small” character moments—is its most innovative element. If you dig the idea of an essentially plot-less narrative that provides only clues about its apocalyptic setting but contains plenty of pretty landscape shots, this may be for you.
In a way, I think your enjoyment of Ravenous will be largely determined by whether you find yourself in sync with its tone, and that’s something you’ll find out within the first ten minutes. Despite plenty of high-pitched zombie screaming, there’s a stillness at the core of the movie, an inward-looking quality that refuses to favor either hope or nihilism. Characters make decisions and deal with the consequences without inferring any larger meaning. In one scene Tania (well played by Monia Chokri) accuses Bonin (a solid performance by Marc-André Grondin) of changing the subject whenever the conversation becomes serious. True: Bonin likes to engage in gallows humor. Is he unable to confront the disintegration of the world he once knew, or does he tell these jokes primarily for the benefit of others? From a storytelling perspective, the humor works inasmuch as it releases tension and permits it to rebuild. But it doubles as character statement, keeping us at a certain distance from Bonin’s feelings, much like the film itself keeps us at bay from any conventional dramatic reading.
The zombies themselves are of the quick-acting 28 Days Later (2002) variety, with accomplished but unexceptional make-up. The scenic Canadian woods brought to mind Into the Forest (2016), while the seemingly aimless, incident-laden journey and the quiet little girl, Zoé, made me think of The Road (2009) and her male counterpart in that story. The flesh-eating sequences perhaps recall a recent French-Belgian film, Raw (2016), though here this element is more generically presented and seemingly less of a commentary on anything. They Came Back (2004), a Canadian film, and The Horde (2009), a French production, both featured zombies and may in part be seen as precursors, though perhaps the zombie behavior here is more reminiscent of that in the excellent The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), whose otherworldly score anticipates Pierre-Philippe Côté’s only intermittently interesting music for Ravenous. As in that film, the zombie’s eyes are here neither monomaniacal nor dull. On the contrary, Aubert suggests these zombies have become something truly other: driven by animalistic urges, yes, but far from stupid. At least two scenes suggest worship in the service of budding spirituality, and perhaps even a form of telepathy. Going back farther still, maybe David Cronenberg’s low-budget Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) are apt examples of contagion stories that helped to create the tradition within which Ravenous operates.
Despite its unobtrusive storytelling style, which at times approaches cinéma vérité, it’s hard to engage with Ravenous’ characters, primarily because there are too many of them. Their actions don’t convey enough individuating information for us to care. Case in point: our introduction, by way of Céline’s journey, to the two elderly women, Therese and Pauline. This lack of character development wouldn’t be an issue if the film explored each of these characters merely in terms of the improvised group’s cohesive nature. Instead, almost as soon as everyone’s paths have crossed, Aubert opts for disintegration. Members of the sundry cohort are picked off or must eliminate each other after being bitten. Very well; but little sense of irony or tragedy can be derived from the aloof manner in which this happens when we hardly know who these people are. At one point, during a bit of a meltdown, Tania rashly reduces both Bonin and Zoé to signature traits. Transpose this to some of the other characters, like the boy Ti-Cul, and it becomes a valid criticism.
The film makes clear early on that it won’t bother explaining the origins of this virus, which it writes off as an unsolvable enigma with one poetic line. Again, I have no objections to this. But I do wish, if the film is declaring that we shouldn’t worry about the zombie plague mechanics, that it wouldn’t keep drawing our attention back to the actual zombification process itself through wildly inconsistent occurrences. To name just one: Bonin explains to Tania, while she’s tied up, that if she’s been bitten she’ll feel a headache, nausea, and then the next day she’ll get blotches on her skin, and then the day after that she’ll start hungering for human flesh. And yet in some scenes characters appear to “turn” much faster than this; also, they seem to bite victims with wildly different degrees of intensity and intent.
The idea of the zombies being drawn to sound is effectively handled, and it taps into a basic human fear of the deadly consequences of disturbing nature. The accordion becomes emblematic of this and actually serves the plot near the end of the movie. In this sense, Ravenous has raised my expectations for the forthcoming A Quiet Place (2018). Nature imagery abounds in Ravenous, from specific shots of slugs and lizards to one beautiful sequence in which running horses evoke the famous unicorn shot in Blade Runner (1984), except here it’s no dream—rather, all of reality itself has become absurd and dream-like. The realism of the directing and photography are useful to keep the whole framework from collapsing in on itself, but even here there are some misfires. Celine’s climactic limb-severing machete scene, for example, made me laugh, which I doubt was its intended effect.
I’m also not sure I fully understood the significance of the film’s last shot, the close-up on Zoé and heightened music. In what way is her role in coming events supposed to be special or unique? Is she a savior of some kind? Perhaps we’re supposed to infer simply that she’s going to turn? Or maybe she represents a new kind of hybrid creature? Ravenous does one thing well: it leaves us hungry for answers.