The zombie apocalypse subgenre has proven sufficiently durable and extensive to encompass everything from traditional horror to romantic comedy, sociopolitical metaphor to knockabout farce. But it’s doubtful that any previous movie or TV drama about the voracious undead has deserved the label of “contemplative” as much as writer-director Robin Aubert’s “The Ravenous” (“Les Affames”), an eerily melancholy horror story set in a contemporary Quebec countryside, where the line between life and death is relentlessly smudged and the survival instinct is repeatedly undermined by fatalistic resignation.
To be sure, Aubert plays by the rules of the game when it comes to establishing the particulars of his plot: Flesh-eating zombies of unknown origin infect or devour humans; the creatures can be terminated only with bullets to the head or through the energetic application of sharp instruments; an increasingly desperate and gradually dwindling group of survivors take their last best shot at traveling toward a safe haven.
But as the late Roger Ebert once sagely noted: It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. What makes “The Ravenous” so unique, arresting and ultimately quite moving is the allusive and elliptical style of Hubert’s storytelling, and his ability to smoothly maneuver through tonal shifts from pensive and regretful to horrific and hyperventilating. His is a film that suggests “Night of the Living Dead” as reimagined by Michelangelo Antonioni, with elements of “Zombieland” (including a clever variation of that dark comedy’s funniest gag) and Bresson’s “L’Argent” tossed in for good measure. Stretches of intense human interaction are interspersed with moments of low-key humor that are gentle, even sweet, and dramatically potent zombie assaults that are all the more jolting for their contrapuntal chaos and abruptness.
The narrative slowly, stealthily takes shape during the film’s first half through the accumulation of events and observations whose randomness is more apparent than real. In a village where the populace has been decimated by the undead, an unattended cow placidly dines on the lawn of a deserted home. On a nearby street, a pants-suited businesswoman (Brigitte Poupart), her facial muscles tightened by resolve, turns her car radio up to full volume to attract one of the walking dead — and methodically hacks the creature to bloody shreds. Off in the woods, a bearded and bespectacled nerd turned grimly efficient zombie-slayer (Marc-André Grondin) wistfully admits to his companion that he really, really wishes he had told a female acquaintance of his infatuation for her before the apocalypse started.
And in another part of the countryside, an elderly man (Luc Proulx) who may already be carrying the zombie virus confesses to a gun-toting boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) that he probably waited too long to slay his zombified family. The boy doesn’t pass judgment because he can sympathize: He, too, hesitated before shooting his infected mother.
“The Ravenous” takes nearly an hour to bring together these and other disparate characters — including the nerd’s mom (Micheline Lanctôt) and her equally flinty companion (Marie-Ginette Guay); a plucky orphaned girl (Charlotte St-Martin); and a haggard but resilient survivor (Monia Chokri) who clings tenaciously to her last possession, an accordion — for an overland trek toward what they hope is a zombie-free zone. Even after the group coalesces, however, Hubert continues to play his cards close to his vest. Not only do we never discover precisely what caused the zombie outbreak; we never learn what unites and drives the undead, or why they periodically gather to reverentially gaze at immense mounds of toys, furniture, appliances and other remnants of their pre-zombie existence. Maybe they remain just cognizant enough to vaguely recall what they used to be. And then again, maybe not.
The uniformly well-cast actors (especially Grondin, Chokri and Poupart) are perfectly attuned to Hubert’s ambiguous vision, providing nuances and generating rooting interest for deliberately sketchy characters. Indeed, the filmmaker emphatically cuts away before the deaths of two characters, as though he figured, rightly, that we wouldn’t want to see them killed on camera. On the other hand, at least two others go down swinging — and hacking — in vividly blood-soaked detail. Their final moments are at once tragic and transcendent.
Chalk it up as just one of the many surprises this movie has in store for anyone who might doubt that there’s any way to breathe fresh life into a zombie apocalypse scenario.