In the opening minutes of The Night Eats the World, we find Parisian Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) having a really bad night. His ex-girlfriend not only appears to have got over him rather quickly, but he’s having to accept the indignity of meeting her at a house party she’s hosting with her new beau – all just so he can reclaim some of his belongings. Soon, it’s the morning after and Sam’s got a lot more to worry about than where his ex keeps his cassettes. Zombies have taken over the streets of Paris; perhaps even the world.
Now, don’t go charging into The Night Eats the World expecting a blood-soaked rampage. Yes, director Dominique Rocher, making his feature-length debut here, has chosen the violently fast type of zombie seen in the likes of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, but this is to simply justify why a whole city can be swarming with the undead whilst Sam sleeps. No, The Night Eats the World is a quieter affair than some will be expecting or, perhaps it’s fair to say, wanting. Your mileage, as they say, will definitely vary.
Deciding he has a better chance of survival staying holed up in his ex’s now empty apartment, Sam has to worry less about the zombies outside his door and more about how being cut off from humanity is going to eat away at him instead. In fact, if you were so inclined, The Night Eats the World shares more in fact with Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away than Shaun of the Dead. Like Tom Hanks’ stranded Fed Ex employee, Sam must raid the resources around him in order to chip away at his plight. He even has his own Winston in the shape of an elderly zombie, played by Denis Lavant (Holy Motors), who’s trapped behind a door screen, allowing Sam a twisted bit of human contact with whom he can put the world right whilst smoking cigars.
Imprisoned in his four-walled desert island, Sam can only exercise by jogging around the palatial apartment. And the film’s audience might think they’re going around in circles as Sam’s everyday solitude begins to drag out. He wakes up, he stares into the middle distance and, occasionally, he plays music in the kitchen by banging drums and splashing water like he’s an extra in a Michel Gondry movie. It takes a lot to ask someone to watch another person slowly go insane for 90 minutes, but what keeps you engaged is how Rocher uses these protracted moments of ‘calm’ to allow other scenes to ricochet off them. Moments like Sam witnessing the first living thing he’s seen in ages – a cat – and suddenly deciding that he has to save it. After such solitude, his attempt at rescue becomes a real hold your breath moment as Sam finally steps outside.
For his part, a lot is expected of Lie. He is, after all, our focal point for the entire film, and given very little dialogue, he manages to convey so much. Another standout scene sees the young man loudly playing the drums through an open window. Does Sam want to attract zombies because he’s had enough alone time, or has he just had enough? It’s a moment where Lie perfectly encapsulates a fragile and breaking mind.
As has been hinted at, The Night Eats the World is a decidedly arthouse interpretation of the old-fashioned zombie flick. It’s glacial pace may be punctured by moments of erratic violence, but it is still ultimately a contemplative film about humanity: how far we can go to lose ours and what can we do to gain it back. Even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing when it wants to, this is still a refreshing take on the base under siege trope so synonymous with movies about the undead.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘The Night Eats the World’ opens in limited release in Australian cinemas between May 9 and 12, 2019.