The wealth of film hitting theaters and VOD services is enough to overwhelm even the most discerning cinephile, which is why it matters to remain open to films beyond your borders both physical and metaphysical. Locking ourselves into genres, into countries, is a great way to miss out on films worthy of attention, films like Ghost Stories from the U.K., The Orphanage (El orfanato) from Spain, or the riveting adaptation of French novel La nuit a dévoré le monde (The Night Eats The World in the U.S.) from first-time feature director Dominique Rocher. Each of these films plays the audience’s expectations for a genre film against them – supernatural specters petrify, ghosts terrify, and zombies are unrelenting – to surprising success. For The Night Eats The World, Rocher utilizes familiar tropes and nods to other famous films, all while shifting the narrative focus toward one man’s retention of humanity in the starkest of situations.
Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) reluctantly attends a party at his ex-girlfriend’s flat in Paris with the sole intent of getting back a box of tapes she inadvertently took when they separated. When a combination of too much alcohol and an accidental head wound makes him drowsy, he falls asleep in a back office, utterly ignorant of a biological event that renders the entire populace as members of the growing zombie horde or under attack from the undead. Upon realizing he’s the lone survivor in the apartment, Sam makes his way to the roof to survey the city and look for both help and a way out. To his horror, any survivors he sees are quickly chased down by the undead and the building is too far away from the neighboring flats to jump. Desperate for supplies, enveloped by the growing hordes, and with only his wits to keep him alive, what began as a night to recover his past transforms into a journey to restore his future.
There’s a thoughtfulness that pervades every aspect of The Night Eats The World which assists in transforming the film from your average zombie film into something far more meaningful. Some of this is due to the narrative, some to the performance, and some to the direction. Each of these three components works seamlessly to craft a zombie film that’s less about the monsters and more about the man trapped by them. For example, within the first moments of the story, Sam is established as an outsider to his location as we watch as he walks, a bit timidly, up steps and around party-goers. He engages with no one other than his ex-girlfriend Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) and Lie’s performance suggests a man ill at ease among everyone around him, making the choice to separate himself from the larger crowd a seasonable notion – one that inevitably saves his life. Within a brief sequence, Roucher establishes everything we need to know about what Sam values, how Sam feels about those around him, and his lack of a history with the party location. Doing so establishes clearly that – come morning – Sam’s more isolated than he would be in his own home. Adding to the fact that nothing in Night seeks to explain how individuals are turned into flesh-craving monsters, the narrative also ensures that Sam is as alone literally as he is metaphorically. Without the safety of his own home, Sam’s on unequal footing, making every choice to explore or stay within the flat more dire. One example of how Rocher shows this is the moment when Sam realizes that his building is too far from any other rooftop to get away. To highlight it, the camera shifts to a long-shot above the building, slowly spinning clockwise as Sam runs from one end of the building to another, his distant white shirt the only thing the audience sees moving in the stillness of the city.
What’s likely to surprise audiences most about Night is its encompassing minimalism. Roucher’s camerawork shies away from grand sweeping movements, selecting instead to use simple tracking shots that linger upon Sam. Doing so not only confines what the viewer sees, but it also continues the concept of confinement pervasive throughout the film. The noise, as well, follows suit by being largely vacant. The expected ambient noise of a bustling city is replaced with sounds emanating either from Sam, the building itself, or the zombies in near proximity. However, rarely giving off more than a scraping or rustling noise, the zombies are uncomfortably quiet – only making low hissing sounds and the occasional click of a closing jaw. The lack of sound amplifies both Sam’s constant solitude and seemingly never-ending danger. Though there is a score, and music plays a large role personally for Sam, the use of it only enhances the events played on screen, rather than directing the audience toward an emotion or sense of dread. Every movement by Sam, every decision he makes, carries with it a varying magnitude of weight; so must the use of sound in transforming a space once life-affirming into something more dreadful. Additionally, Sam himself is presented to us as a mystery that the audience must decipher by his actions. We only know who Sam is from the initial interaction at the party and we know that the creatures are zombies because of what they do. Beyond that, though, not a single answer or explanation is offered or explored. Night isn’t interested in the larger story of humanity’s fall from Earth, but rather, it explores one man’s attempt to maintain his humanity. Night accomplishes this by showing us how Sam solves problems of food and safety, and, most importantly, by showing us how he treats those infected. Sam traps a zombie in an elevator and decides to keep him “alive” because he saw the zombie as contained. Sure, the moment when Sam decides not to dispatch the zombie can be read as a choice not to waste weaponry or risk contamination, however, Sam demonstrates immense compassion several times throughout the film that suggest otherwise.
The minimalistic approach of the narrative imbues a natural stillness to Night, a refreshing antithesis to the majority of horror films that just want to heave endless trauma upon the characters and – in turn – to the audience. This isn’t stillness for the sake of increasing tension but as a growing sense of suspension that comes from isolation. Silence is both the main mode of the zombies and a means of survival for Sam. The creatures still hear and see, though how much is purely speculative. Unlike the zombies of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake or Marc Foster’s World War Z, these zombies only run when they hear noise. Like a moth to a flame, they shift from a near-stoic, statuesque appearance to something akin to a cheetah mowing down its prey, prepared to rend and tear with merciless strength. Realizing this, Sam finds a way to survive in the building – fortifying it like a modern day Robinson Crusoe in a concrete jungle – by clearing each room with methodical purpose. As if to make the theme of stagnation that plagues Sam’s situation more clear, his only real means of companionship comes from the zombie he’s left trapped in an elevator, a neighbor named Alfred (Denis Lavant), will no doubt remind some horror fans of Bub from George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. With no one else to talk to, Sam begins a serious of quiet conversations with Alfred, providing Sam with one of only a few opportunities to speak openly about his struggles. With sound being directly connected to Sam’s survival, the audience is largely left with no barometer for Sam’s mental acuity which is an issue that begins to creep into focus the longer his isolation extends. However, once the building is secured, Sam cures the silence by delighting in music – either from tapes he finds in various buildings or from music he makes himself using toys, vases, and other materials at his disposal. As though freed from a prison, Sam’s able to open himself up more psychologically, even as he physically wears down from the monotony. In one particularly devastating moment, Sam goes in a room he frequently visits – driven by a strong communal spirit with the previous tenant – and goes to town on a drum kit, releasing his rage, his sadness, and his longing for change into a bombastic solo. He knows what making the noise means even as he sees zombies clamor for his second story window. As the horde attempts to climb up to him, Sam leans out, screaming at them, unloading everything until he realizes what he’s done. Once more, without a line of dialogue, it’s a moment so pure and simple in communicating all that’s built up within Sam, it’s hard to deny its emotional resonance.
Without having read the original Pit Agarmen novel, it’s hard to say how truthful the screenwriting team of Jérémie Guez, Guillaume Lemans, and Rocher stayed to the source material. What they did create, however, is an exceptionally evocative film that’s going to surprise fans and non-fans of the genre. Though it utilizes obvious tropes now and again, The Night Eats The World still manages to feel fresh and authentic thanks to Lie’s performance and Rocher’s superb direction. In a world filled with generic blockbusters and studio-crafted horror series, take a chance on something a little familiar, but very different, something that’ll pull you in with its simplicity and send you out of the experience with a renewed sense of wonder, something that shows you what happens when don’t let isolation destroy what matters when the night eats the world.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.