Robin Aubert turns rural zombie tropes on their head.
While many zombie films are set in rural areas, the characters of such films are usually urban dwellers who have escaped cities in the hopes that the countryside is safer, that any possible survivors might be more welcoming, and remoteness means possibility of survival and rebuilding. But Quebecois director & writer Robin Aubert turns much of these tropes on their head, instead focusing on those whose small-town and rural lives take on new meaning in the wake of the apocalypse.
In his latest feature Les Affamés, Aubert looks to the non-stereotypical diverse population of one such area, in the fields and dairy farms of rural Quebec, and takes a distintly anti-pastorial view of the hardships that come with rural living, now amplified by the growing zombie hordes.
The zombie apocalypse has begun. But for the still-human residents of the Quebec countryside, community or assistance of any kind, especially of the official kind, is conspicuously absent. A few lone survivors - Bonin, a lone man whose one companion dies quickly; Tania, a musician caught at her father's cottage; Réal, an insurance agent who had to kill his wife; Céline, a woman-turned-zombie-hunter; Pauline and Thérèse, a couple living in termporarily reasonable safety; and a young boy and girl who have seen far more than any child should have - are still coping with the brave new world as they seek some sort of shelter.
These are still the early days of the apocalypse, so while some of the characters have figured out the immediate necessities of survival, they are still shell-shocked from the trauma. There is still a desire to help those now turned, even if it means risking death; still a desire to lash out in anger at anyone or any zombie getting in the way to channel the anger and pain; still a need to make stupid jokes to find a bit of levity and respite.
Aubert introduces each character by something they carry with them, be it their weapon of choice, a sentimental object they cannot part with, a simple joy of home life, or a mask of disguise. These things are both comfort and burden, until they find comfort in each other. But even small town neighbourliness has its limits: any stranger must be checked for bite marks, and some strangers, even if they carry weapons, might be best avoided. And no help will be forthcoming; the rural areas have been abandoned by authorities, who though unseen, are felt in their absence, protecting the preferred city dwellers at the expense of those who, at least in part, keep them alive.
The zombies carry things too; these are not slow, almost mindless Romero-style zombies, but fast moving ones. Shouting at times, with a terrifying banshee cry, but also able to trick their prey with bait and make it almost impossible to predict their movements. They carry their own things, creating bizarre structures in the landscape as if in some call-back to work and creation, or a signal or where is zombie territory.
Aubert infuses the film with a mixture of silence and discordant, haunting sound. The natural sounds and limited human sounds of the countryside, in other films seen as serene, here are deadly. Even the most basic human acts of moving through a forest or whispering to someone can mean attraction of zombies and death. And when there is a score, it brings the surrealism of the situation into glaring light; as the sun hits the beautiful fields, juxtaposed against this are the few remaining humans running for their lives.
Aubert does not make his film completely grim and austere; one character provides some excellent comic relief in his naivete, and when there is a zombie attack, the action is both gruesome and thrilling. Indeed, this is a fair emotional rollarcoaster, as the audience joins the characters in their chock and vulnerability. Les Affamés is a welcome addition to the zombie movie cannon, one that takes the zombie trope in a new and interesting direction, using it to examine issues of rural isolation and neglect, human connection, sentimental attachment, the necessities of survival and sacrifice.