In 1954, Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend, unwittingly gave birth to the modern zombie. Although Matheson's undead were labeled vampires, by subverting the Gothic and driving an American stake through their hearts, these were far from the supernatural ghouls to which audiences had become accustomed. Although there is a whiff of garlic, their condition is less love tonic and more of a viral disease that causes a worldwide pandemic where Matheson first introduces the concept of a worldwide zombie apocalypse.
His writing was some of the leanest and meanest out there and was at its best when he placed individuals out of their depth, forced to explore the scientific origins of his circumstance. I Am Legend is a prime example of a traumatized and artistic mind working within an anxious climate of the McCarthy era; having fought in World War II, Matheson had seen the apocalypse first-hand and as one of many “ordinary heroes,” was thrust into the conflict where he witnessed death and destruction on a global scale. Through satire and sleight of hand, he focused on the struggle of the everyman rather than the mad scientist and superheroes that had grown so popular during his formative years. Matheson's novels and screenplays delivered madhouses and shrunken men, angry vehicles and the threat of an unseen enemy; he rationalized and laid out the facts within the fiction by replacing the folklore and the supernatural with a test tube kit that destroyed all genre clichés through germ theory and contagion. Almost as if he saw the whole thing coming.
Matheson set precedent. The secret in keeping zombies alive is to subvert expectation, even in the most familiar plots and storylines where, most of the time, it lies within the rules and the origins of the undead that have so often been reinvigorated over the years. Close comparisons are made to Danny Boyle's realistic take in 28 Days Later (2002) and humor of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2004). But it is the underrated and often overlooked The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) from Jorge Grau that delivers one of the best causes and effects as agricultural experiments with sound waves bring the dead back to life, echoed in Bruce McDonald's Pontypool (2008). The film is an interesting mix of Spanish and Italian exploitation set against the backdrop of the English countryside with unintentionally hilarious dubbing but still delivers one of the best from the Z-list.
I am Sam
Dominique Rocher's debut, The Night Eats the World (2018), should be near the top of the Z-list. Similar to I Am Legend, the film more than holds up (some would say surpasses) any adaptation of Matheson's novel to date. Based on the 2012 French novel La nuit a dévoré le monde by Martin Page (under the pen name Pit Agarmen), the original story was written as a diary similar in tone to Max Brooks' inventive approach to the subgenre with The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and later work, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006).
Noises scare Anders Danielsen.
Although Sam isn't as heroic, steadfast and proactive as Matheson's lead, Robert Neville — who goes out of his way to experiment and understand how the world has turned to shit and know his enemy — Sam reverts to closing himself off from the world outside, with little effort to leave the apartment. He's not stupid; he has more than likely read Matheson and seen all the zombie movies for his own survival guide. Instead, once he is past the initial shock, he seems more than happy just to explore the confines of the castle that he's inherited as potentially the last man on Earth.
If you were ever confined to the house as a kid, most of us dragged ourselves across the floor, imagining the world was turned upside down and sideways; climbed on top of sofas to escape the sharks; or held our breath under the kitchen table imagining we were Shelly Winters in the Poseidon Adventure. No? Just me then. Although I would put money on it that Sam did all of those things. It's another reason he is better prepared for this world that isn't so much turned upside down as it is wiped out.
Sam is no soldier. He's not even a hero, just a musician who is more than likely used to sitting around in his boxers all day, pissing about on the drums. He doesn't even exert himself to do push-ups; he's more comfortable with the silence because the noise he makes comes from inside, rather than out. This presents The Night Eats the World as one of the most melancholic, meditative, philosophical and cerebral zombie movies you will ever see. There is little drama, conflict or horror as it focuses primarily on our central character and reality of the situation.
Released the same year as The Night Eats the World, Daniel Roby's lo-fi, sci-fi apocalyptic thriller, Just a Breath Away (Dans la brume) is an interesting companion piece. Once again set in Paris, two parents attempt to protect their daughter after an earthquake releases toxic gas on the city after an earthquake. Where Sam remains passive, Mathieu and Anna have far more at stake as they face the threat of their daughter trapped below in her hermetic chamber, due to a rare genetic disease. Relying on battery power to keep her alive and with power out across the city, the film delivers more immediacy and tension as their daughter's life hangs in the balance. Instead of the undead, it's the rising gas that forces the parents to the rooftops.
Whether it's the undead or lethal gas, it seems that from a Parisian point of view, the end of the world has been boiling under the surface for some time. When civil unrest erupted from the suburbs in Autumn 2005, the government invoked a state of emergency that lasted several months. It was meant to fight off youth riots because of the imposition of strict workforce laws. For those younger than 26, unemployment was at an all-time low — especially in the lower classes — while the wealthy coveted their apartments and possessions.
Light on plot, it makes sense that the film presents a young character withdrawn from the world before it's eaten by a different kind of greed. Upon arriving at his ex-girlfriend’s house party to collect his music tapes she asks, "Why don't you stick around, have a drink, meet some new people for a change?" They are polar opposites; she has clearly moved on — her extrovert personality craving the attention. Introvert Sam barely acknowledges the question; he just wants his things. When he accidentally bumps into someone, he rests his head, falls asleep and wakes up to an empty world, the apartment torn apart like a murder scene. He opens the door of the apartment, and his ex is sitting there, quietly. For a moment, we think she's silently reminiscing or even consoling a friend before they both turn and clamber for the door. No groaning; no vicious screams; only silent hunger that batters against the door that he slams shut.
Sound of silence
The opening scene is a genuine contrast to how the rest of the film plays out — a house party full of people alive on the inside — whereas Sam seems a little dead to begin with, his heart still torn out by his ex. You can clearly see that his world — even before the pandemic — was an empty one where rather than belonging he seems to crave personal belongings. His quiet nature speaks volumes, and the undead's quiet horror reflects this. It is, after all, his reclusiveness that ultimately saves him.
After the initial attack, he looks traumatized. He rummages through pockets of the party guests’ discarded clothes and listens to recordings on mobile phones, other peoples' music and recordings. Like a true artist, he samples and feeds himself on what he finds; he observes and looks for the use in objects rather than attempting to understand the severity of the problem. Sam is a thinker, rather than a man of action (more parked than parkour) but through either PTSD or his own coping mechanism, he finds enough distractions to keep himself sane. Or so we think.
As he hears a gunshot from the flat below, he smashes his way through the floor to survey what has happened. An old man has blown his brains out. He can't face the world alone without his wife who has suffered a similar fate after being bitten. Sam moves on and continues to store food from other apartments and calculates what he collects. He finds further comfort listening to others' playlists and their own recordings — the dead sharing their musical appreciation and sound bites. All the while, there is no immediacy to Sam; he entertains himself by making music out of his empty bottles and, much like Robert Neville, the last man of I Am Legend, he finds a pet that becomes a fitting totem of his personality, a cat.
When he later comes to discard the old man and woman's bodies, he can't bring himself to literally throw them away (older generations forgotten) and lays them to rest in their bed, sealed in sleeping bags. This shows us that his soul just about remains intact. His heartbeat remains in music, which is a crucial part of the film along with the surrounding space and architecture. There is a beautiful moment where his imagination is brought to the surface, creating music with a surviving female. It is a whimsical moment bordering on the whimsy of Michel Gondry, but as the scene takes a darker turn, we question how fractured his mind has become and what else (or even who else) he has started to create. Sam's audience has become the dead and, ironically, the only thing that makes him feel alive as they clamber to his cacophony like a demented audience.
The seeds of his cabin fever are there when he starts to talk to an undead, elderly man trapped in an elevator like a caged pet. He learns the man's name is Alfred (a superb Denis Lavant) who shows no aggression and seems to show some life behind his dead eyes. When Sam finally decides to set him free, he walks past, revealing his fatality to the back of the neck that seems to have inhibited the zombie aggression. Unlike the rest of the world, it seems Sam cares for the older generation as he gives back the remnants of Alfred's life. In another allegorical moment, he accidentally shoots a Muslim female, Sarah (Golshifteh Farahani) that could be read as a microcosmic comment on foreign invasion and immigration that the far right in France is so often criticized for. Sam's denial manifests into something that literally pushes him over the edge.
Sam doesn't look for the solution to the problem that Robert Neville, Mathieu, Anna and many other protagonists face with horror. Both films share a strong emotional beat but where Roby's film is faster-paced and more predictable, Rocher delivers something more open and speculative in the closing moments. Where Breath is a more immediate film, Night is more meditative. Rocher's zombies are some of the best put to screen and illustrate the silence of the film perfectly as all we hear are their clumsy movements as they stumble over each other, groping for their next meal. They are somewhere between fast-paced rabid killers and the classic shuffler and if you listen more carefully, you may just hear their rigor mortis as they strain to feed on the last living morsel.
The Night Eats the World may have less bite than most zombie movies, but during the current lockdown, it provides the perfect shut-in horror. It’s kind of French cuisine and quarantine where, from the offset, the majority of Paris is French toast. Trust me, the last man on Earth will play the drums. He may not save any of us but if he manages to survive past the next rooftop, he'll make some bloody great music in the process.