The Night Eats the World is a detail-rich zombie procedural ingeniously set in one house, with one main guy as its focus, a couple of “names” doing the sort of walk-on you’d have thought they were above and a lot of extras stumbling about and moaning.
Director Dominique Rocher’s feature debut spends a few minutes at the beginning just introducing us to its main character before it hits us. Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) is at a party he doesn’t want to be at – he’s just there to pick up some belongings after having obviously split acrimoniously with his girlfriend – falls asleep while waiting for her to show him exactly where his bloody tapes are, so he can get out of there, and when he wakes up in the morning the zombie apocalypse has happened. Everyone is either dead or a shuffling monster.
Sam cottons on quickly to what’s happened, going instantly into stealth mode, either because he lives in a slightly parallel Paris where a zombie apocalypse has always been a possibility, or because he’s seen a lot of zombie movies, like the rest of us. Either way he’s soon grabbed a weapon, secured the exits and entrances, done a recce of the house and started assembling the beginnings of a post-zombie-apocalypse life.
A question that always comes up with a zombie movie is what sort of zombies we’re going to get. Whether they can they run (Day of the Dead), think (Army of the Dead), operate as individuals (Return of the Living Dead) or as pack creatures (Train to Busan) seems important, and sometimes is important. But it’s not the nub on which this film turns – the zombies here are a bit of all those things, but Rocher and Pit Agarmen (who wrote the original novel) have a different focus. They’re almost entirely interested in humankind, not zombiedom.
Waking up in a world gone to shit is the basic setup for Day of the Triffids (later borrowed by 28 Days Later), and a guy holding out against the horde, building a life out of civilisation’s leftovers, that’s I Am Legend (the basis for 1971’s The Omega Man as well as the later Will Smith movie). And at a certain point in The Night Eats the World Sam manages to acquire a zombie pet, which he keeps locked up in one of those iron cage elevators you get in apartment buildings. That’s a borrow from the Argentinian zombie drama What’s Left of Us (aka El Desierto) – which is a hell of a lot better than the miserly 5.2 rating it’s currently getting on IMDB (c’mon people!).
But the film The Night Eats the World most resembles is The Martian. Because this is also a film about a resourceful human being trying to survive in a hostile climate, using his wits, screwing his courage to the sticking point, borrowing and re-purposing whatever is to hand. And it goes into extreme detail about how he does that – staying fit, procuring food, developing surveillance tactics, sorting out the water situation when the mains supply finally goes off, and so on.
It also insists on the innateness and importance of certain aspects of humanity which are often treated as add-ons, luxuries, fripperies – Sam makes music and invents things, he seeks out company in the shape of a cat, he starts developing rituals to make meaning out of his chaotic surroundings.
Barely a zombie movie at all, in fact, though the creatures are always somewhere out there, and if Sam makes a noise – he loves drumming (actor Anders Danielsen Lie is a drummer in real life, as well as a working doctor) – the undead come running.
How did director Rocher get actors of the stature of Denis Lavant (probably best known for Holy Motors) or the Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani (sensational in The Patience Stone) to pitch up for his movie? No idea, but though neither probably did more than a day’s work, there they are, adding a bit of marquee weight to a film that must have had a budget consisting of lunch money.
They’re clearly people of taste. This is a simple but fabulous film.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021