One of the better zombie movies on Netflix, but …
In the sea of zombie-based content found on Netflix, Ravenous stands out like a distant island on the horizon. The film’s significance is hard to make out at first; though it’s promoted as a Netflix Original, Ravenous’ plot description is commonplace. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for this Canadian horror film to show its teeth.
Directed by Robin Aubert, Ravenous (Les Affamés) opens in a rural region of Quebec, assumedly, on one of the first few days of the apocalypse. A racing event is taking place and a couple is seen kissing in a semi-secluded area near the track. Their public display of affection ends tragically moments later; the woman is violently bitten while the boyfriend looks on in horror. From here, the main cast is slowly introduced as the film skips to sometime after the plague has swept through the town. An old man can be seen fleeing from infected pursuers. A young boy mourns a recent loss before setting off on his own. Two friends trade jokes as they burn bodies in the woods. The early moments of the film are broken into what feels like vignettes – where instead of focusing on an overarching plot, we’re given snapshots of the current happenings as experienced by this small sampling of the surviving population.
Aubert uses these seemingly random jumping off points to establish an ominous atmosphere. There isn’t much in the way of exposition during this period. And though one will certainly have an idea of what’s going on, not being able to fully interpret an overarching story given the details provided can be unsettling. This effect is heightened by the way these early scenes are filmed. Long sweeping shots and a panning camera seem to lead the viewer to subconsciously search for a focal point. The action is in the forefront and covered at a slant, while things are manifesting in the background; the camera will follow a character’s head movements, highlighting a change in the environment (or the presence of an infected) a few seconds before the audience notices. Then there are the segments where the film goes quiet. One scene has Bonin, one of the body-burning friends from before, waiting to see if the noise created by opening the driver side door of his truck has blown his cover. Because the infected are drawn out by the slightest of sounds, Aubert zeroes in on the tree line, building tension as we wait for to see if anyone noticed.
This minimalist approach to storytelling makes us feel like we’ve been dropped right in the middle of something. Like an unseen character, we get to experience each calamity in the same fashion as our protagonists. But because we’re only privy to these current events, we’re left to fend for ourselves. Both in dealing with what’s happening in Quebec and in understanding each character’s personal plight. This is especially true when observing the odd behavior exhibited by the infected. Sometimes they’ll stand still, quietly staring at nothing. Other times, they can be seen gathering around large mounds made from inanimate objects. And though they are extremely violent, they don’t always attack right away. None of it makes sense. Not to our cast and certainly not to us.
That’s not to say that the audience is completely clueless. There are signs that we can hold on to. Take Céline, the tough business woman played by Brigitte Poupart, who’s first seen driving into a neighborhood by herself. Stopping her car in the middle of the street, she opens her door and cranks up the volume on her radio. Doing so alerts an infected person. As he races to her car, Céline readies a machete. After sighing deeply, she gets out and proceeds to hack him to pieces. The complete details of the attack are obstructed as the camera moves through the back of her vehicle, highlighting the first clue as to why she’s so angry. Upon reinterring her car, she takes a moment to gather herself. Displaying one of her only moments of weakness, she gives a sigh of relief before noticing an infected child staring at her. Ignoring him, Céline drives onwards. These bits of information, at first, are treated like dwindling resources.
Whether it be a mournful glance, a subtle shift in tone, or someone’s strong attachment to an accordion, the viewer is only given just enough follow along. We don’t even learn some of the character’s names until the latter half of the film. Despite this disconnect, the cast does a wonderful job of making their characters relatable. Marc-André Grondin and Monia Choki’s Bonin and Tania steal the show though. Especially Tania, who’s resilience leads to some of the film’s more touching moments. That is when she isn’t facilitating a dark joke; there’s a certain, hilarious scene involving a gun that I won’t spoil here.
There is a shift in the pacing when the remaining survivors start to run into each other. From there, Ravenous follows a more formulaic path. As places become less hospitable, our group heads towards a safe haven. Hope is tied to the possibility of rescue while despair is flaunted by a character with a suspicious bite mark. Despair sets in as their numbers start to dwindle. It’s basically what we’ve come to expect from this type of film. That said, the eerie atmosphere is still present. The tone that was established early on colors how we see the rest of the film; the strange nature of it all makes the more routine segments feel fresh.
I believe Ravenous is one of the better zombie movies on Netflix. At the same time, I did feel that Aubert was a bit too ambiguous. It works fine for the antagonists – I honestly don’t need to know how they became infected or why they act the way they do. But there are a few scenes toward the end that are particularly vague. They aren’t there haphazardly of course, there is meaning. It just isn’t clear what’s going on; the after-credits scene further confuses things. This didn’t derail my enjoyment personally, though I’m sure people will be split on whether these scenes hurt the film.