Zombie movies have been done every which way, and then some. It’s been said often, but bears repeating, that it’s difficult to bring anything new or fresh to the genre. But a movie doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel or do something entirely unheard of in order to be effective. Dominique Rocher’s debut feature, The Night Eats the World, falls into a category with films like The Girl with all the Gifts, Train to Busan, and The Battery, movies that, while they don’t necessarily blow up the categorical conventions, do what they do well, put an inventive spin on the proceedings, and breathe a bit of life into what can be a stale horror subset.
The premise is simple. Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie. Personal Shopper) shows up at his ex’s to pick up some of his stuff. She’s having a party. He drinks too much. In the morning when he wakes up, he discovers everyone has turned into a flesh-hungry zombie and he’s trapped in his ex’s apartment building surrounded by the undead. And that’s pretty much it.
The Night Eats the World essentially traces Sam’s evolution from passive observer to active participant in his life. By societal standard, he’s a slacker, a loser, a schlub who still rides a skateboard and collects cassette tapes. Though it’s never explicitly stated, it leaves the impression that’s why his ex dumped him. Everything in the script, adapted from Pit Agarmen’s novel, conspires to force Sam to act, to do. He runs out of food, he has to scour the building; the power goes out, he has to cope; the plumbing stops working, he needs to find a source of water; boredom and mundanity threaten his mental state, he comes up with elaborate ways to entertain himself and fill the time.
This is a quiet movie—though short blasts of noise, particularly Sam banging away on a drum kit, and a sharp, punk rock edge do punctuate the picture. After the opening, he barely utters a word until the 41-minute mark, and even then, he only talks to a zombie trapped in an old-timey elevator until much later in the game, when another survivor (Golshifteh Farahani, Paterson) shows up. But for the bulk of the film, it’s Sam, alone.
A sparse, spare character study, it serves as a showcase for Danielsen Lie. It’s a slow burn unravelling; a dreamy, meditative affair. Though it lacks some of the straight-up horror elements—or at least pushes them to the side in favor of other concerns—The Night Eats the World offers a substantial emotional punch, unexpected shifts and moves, and an ending that’s both ambiguous but satisfying. Is it hopeful and optimistic or crushing and desolate? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. [Grade: B+]