'Les affamés' is the Best Canadian Horror Film in Years

Les affamés (The Ravenous)
(Canada, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Robin Aubert
Starring: Marc-André Grondin, Monia Chokri, Charlotte St-Martin, Micheline Lanctôt, Brigitte Poupart, Marie-Ginette Guay, Robert Brouillette
Robin Aubert's Les affames (The Ravenous)
Marc-André Grondin in Les affamés
Emmanuel Crombez / Les Films Séville
Some call it home and others call it cottage country, but what often draws one to the rural regions of Canada is the silence. The quiet and leafy countryside can be an idyllic reminder of a way of life that seems forgotten in the fast-paced and impersonal cities to which everyone flocks. There’s something truly beautiful, however, about sitting back and watching the sunset over grassy plains rather than through tightly packed condos, smelling pine-scented air rather than carcinogenic smog, or being in a neighbourhood where people wave rather than accuse randomly you of offending them. The sound of silence rather than the din of traffic. This image of “Canada” doesn’t really fit the cultural imagination anymore, but it hasn’t died away.

A scream pierces the quiet Quebecois countryside in Robin Aubert’s Les affamés. The film envisions zombie horror to spin region representation on its head. The silence that once felt refreshing now sounds downright chilly, while the beautiful woods are haunting landscapes of death. This reinvigorating horror flick, which won a well-deserved Best Canadian Feature at TIFF last year but inexplicably didn’t see a theatrical release outside of Quebec, chills the blood with its disquieting ability to drop terror into familiar terrain. Les affamés is the best Canadian horror film in years.

This suspenseful masterpiece of genre filmmaking is up there with Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool and David Cronenberg’s Rabid. Les affamés, also known as The Ravenous but only really in association with its upcoming Netflix release in the USA, is minimalist auteur-driven horror at its finest as Aubert (À l’origine d’un cri) delivers a chilling tale about the abandonment of regional communities. Don’t forget to breathe while diving into this fable of cultural survival.

Leading the charge among the remaining humans is Bonin (C.R.A.Z.Y.’s Marc-André Grondin) who patrols the anonymous rural area, shotgun in hand, with his friend Vézina (Didier Lucien) looking for survivors, shelter, and sustenance. The pair encounters a deadly trap at the woods that illustrates just how crafty and sneaky these zombies are. Like the infected ghouls of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later or the Olympic-level sprinters of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, these zombies are not of the foot dragging midnight B-movie variety. They run quickly and move stealthily. Sound triggers them and the moment they see live flesh, they unleash a blood-curdling cry like a crow signalling food to its flock.

Bonin encounters fellow survivors when the zombie brigade changes the course of his direction. He befriends an elderly lesbian couple, Pauline (Micheline Lanctôt) and Thérèse (Marie-Ginette Guay), who have a decent survival camp set up replete with pickles and ammo, along with machete-toting, suit-wearing working mother Céline (Brigitte Poupart), who is visibly traumatised after having seen her entire family taken by the disease. These three are very cautious with Bonin’s arrival, though, since he comes with two others in tow: a little girl, Zoé (Charlotte St-Martin), who is harmless if a liability, and Tania (Les amour imaginaires’ Monia Chokri) who claims the bite mark on her arm is from a dog. The zombies of Les affamés aren’t unique in their ability to spread infection by sinking their teeth into mortal flesh, but the speed with which their illness pollutes the body and the mind bides its time and allows for ample suspense. All they can do is wait.

Grondin leads a strong ensemble that defies genre convention with a mix of unlikely heroes. Chokri is effective as the jumpy and shell-shocked Tania who finds her strength as they journey progresses, while Poupart easily steals the show in the standout performance of the film that brings a deadpan sense of humour to this bloody tale. She’s a stoic warrior, funny as hell and fierce like a motherfucker. A Best Supporting Actress nominee at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, she deserves to win if anyone could see the film. (Or be bothered to.)

The pack realizes that nobody is coming to help them as they scour the area and take stock of the situation. The team notes with bitter resignation that the few lives scattered around the farms and rural communities won’t be worth saving compared to all the people concentrated in the city. These are the forgotten people. The abandoned.

The emptiness of the rolling fields and lush woodland of this rural setting is truly eerie. Aubert uses space, setting, and blocking masterfully as the natural elements of the region become inextricably linked with the dynamic of life and death, particularly  through the calming use of greens. Trees create blind spots as zombies lurk in the forests. Cameras roll at different paces with the humans as they rush through the woods and create sightlines reminiscent of the velociraptors hunting human prey in the fields of The Lost World.

The use of natural light and fog is particularly spectacular with a dark twilight escape through the forest providing a breathless and heart-pounding escape as one watches the silhouettes of the survivors slip perilously by dark shadows that could house death. A late battle scene sees Céline attack the zombies like a warrior princess and her blood-soaked pantsuit provides the one spec of colour amidst the ghostly images of the mist in the dark woods. There are passages of Les affamés that could easily pass for being shot in black and white as the deathly pockets of the natural landscape come like shadows to swallow the few remaining Quebeckers whole.

Sound is particularly essential in Les affamés as the slightest crack of a twig can alert the ghouls. Extensive passages of the film play out in absolute silence and the barren soundtrack is downright nerve-wracking. The exploding heads of the zombies are admittedly squishy delights and the extensive make-up of the infected impresses, but Les affamés is at its most harrowing when it simply uses the abandoned people and their forgotten land. Call it Faces Places with Fangs.

The zombies add to the film’s commentary on the urban/rural divide and the adrenaline-pumping urgency for cultural survival as the monsters protect their land and the humans, in turn, try to make sense of themselves as dying breeds. As the survivors pass through their fallen neighbours in the fields, they see them gathered around tale piles of objects amassed from abandoned homes. The zombies take old crappy chairs and wardrobes with the same predatory hunger with which they hunt humans. They flock to the pile of cobbled material things like bugs dragged magnetically to a flame or contemporary humanoids transfixed by devices and transformed by impersonal connection as life passes them by.

Les affamés is now available on home video.