I hope you’ll give me credit for not beginning this review with an “off to the races” joke, seeing as how Robin Aubert’s zombie film Les Affamés abruptly opens with a woman getting her jugular torn out at a racetrack. There’s no build-up, no explanation for where the zombies come from, just a racetrack, a woman, a zombie, and a ghastly neck wound. As blood geysers into the sky, we can be forgiven for assuming the film will be the latest in a lengthy line of gory, forgettable zombie thrillers. But the scenes afterwards correct this crucial misunderstanding. What follows are a series of chilly vignettes featuring scattered survivors. Two friends get attacked by a pack of zombie children in a forest, one getting bitten in the escape. As he bleeds out, he lays in the back of his pickup truck with his friend and monotonously chit-chats about Mickey Mouse, James Bond, and schoolyard crushes. Elsewhere a traumatized woman gets strip searched for bite marks by two other survivors who nonchalantly invite her into their house afterwards for a drink. An old man with a suspicious wound hobbles through the countryside with a shell-shocked rifle-toting teenager. There’s barely any talking, barely any action. Just a creepy sense of being watched and being surrounded by an unknowable force. It’s at this point we realize that Les Affamés isn’t a cheesy zombie film—it’s an ARTSY zombie film. Heaven help us. It’s Rod Blackhurst’s Here Alone (2016) all over again.
For all its artistic abstraction—the slow pacing, the dream-like atmosphere, the occasional flashes of surrealistic imagery, the naturalistic dialogue—Les Affamés is as standard a zombie film as they come. All the ragtag survivors we’re introduced to in the opening scenes eventually come together to form the kind of roving commune that viewers of The Walking Dead will recognize immediately. Houses are ransacked for supplies, party members get picked off, a mysterious little girl is discovered. White-collar types learn to use firearms, women get chased through empty fields, and commune members stoically blast the heads off each other when they get bitten. It’s clear that Aubert wanted to make an introspective, character-driven film. But Les Affamés labors too much under grindhouse extravagances. Zombies and survivors are blasted apart and ripped to pieces with an almost Eli Roth level of glee and graphic detail. The film is loaded with cheap jump scares, usually in the form of zombies which seem to teleport beside or behind characters who happen to be looking in a different direction. (This is made even more frustrating by the fact that these ninja-like zombies normally scream and wail like airhorns when it isn’t dramatically convenient for them to be silent.) And for one moment it seems like Les Affamés might be trying something bold and different: the survivors come across a band of zombies who’ve constructed a giant tower of wooden chairs in the middle of a clearing. How did the zombies build it? Why do they congregate around it? And why does it seem to put them in a trance? But none of these questions are answered as the film abandons this fascinating enigma for rote scenes of zombies and survivors killing each other. What a loss.