Zombies are largely portrayed by modern pop culture as moving either in a slow shamble or at a hyperkinetic sprint that, more times than not, indicates a contemporary filmmaker’s fear of boring audiences. For this critic, slow zombies most evocatively telegraph the corporeal imprisonment of “living death,” though director Dominique Rocher fashions an intriguing third option in The Night Eats the World. In this film, zombies more or less move the way they did when they were alive, only more abstractly and with less purpose, at least until human prey comes within their periphery. Rocher lingers for long stretches on panoramas of the creatures wandering an empty Paris, informing zombies with a contemporary sense of futility and ennui.
Rocher’s aim to “keep it real” extends to the film’s set pieces and invests The Night Eats the World with a few nasty and surprisingly graceful shocks. When Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) goes to a party to see his ex-girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz), he’s brushed off and slinks to an office in the back of the apartment, falling asleep as a barely audible scuffle resounds just beyond the doorway. When Sam awakens and opens the door, chaos awaits him: overturned furniture and blood splatter on the walls that suggests cave paintings, indicating the final movements of the previous night’s partygoers. This blood is scarier than the frenetic exertions of traditional modern zombie films.
Rocher understands the mercy of Sam’s survival to be arbitrary, and resists contextualizing the decimation of Paris as an epidemic to be cured. Rocher is simply and refreshingly concerned with the day-to-day life of his protagonist, who suggests a slacker bridge between Rip Van Winkle and the hero of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Rocher shrewdly proffers the details of Sam’s new life, which includes imprisoning a zombie, Alfred (Denis Levant), in an old-fashioned elevator shaft and recruiting him as a one-sided companion figure in the key of Wilson, the volleyball from Cast Away. Levant dramatizes corporeal imprisonment as no actor in a zombie film has before, his haunting gestures suggesting a man of ice who’s perpetually melting and refreezing.
Sam takes inventory of his ex-girlfriend’s building, cataloguing the dead inside each apartment, eventually entombing them in sleeping bags with pictures positioned as makeshift tombstones. He then tapes shut the outside doors of each apartment, and this act of cordoning off rhymes with how he shut himself in the office at the beginning of The Night Eats the World. And so a metaphor arises: Sam must stop hiding from life and its attendant terrors and risk damnation for the possibility of transcendence. This metaphor is artfully handled in the film’s middle stretch, but a woman must, of course, arrive to teach Sam to seize the day. And that woman, Sarah, is so luminously played by Golshifteh Farahani that she almost transcends the stereotype of a beautiful character who exists to teach a dweeb to shed his shell.
Sarah’s presence is later contextualized in a twist that reaffirms Sam’s tunnel vision, but this reveal reeks of Rocher wanting to have it both ways, critiquing a gorgeous savior fantasy so as to indulge it. Sarah also appears so that the filmmaker may explicate themes which he has up to this point already poignantly physicalized. Through tense and emotionally pregnant anecdotes, we already feel Sam’s fear of life and the deep loneliness that it breeds. In The Night Eats the World, Rocher reinvigorates the zombie film only to succumb to the strictures of the coming-of-age romance.