Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a musician who has suffered a bad break-up with his girlfriend Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) and is now determined to make a clean break from her, or as clean as he can, by going around to her apartment and getting his tapes back. However, when he arrives he finds she is holding a party there, and is distracted at best when he wants to sort things out as quickly as possible. She tells him to wait in her office, and on the way there he is jostled to the extent that someone bloodies his nose, not improving his mood one iota. He locks the door and sees his cassettes, then as he dabs at his face settles down to wait for Fanny, falling asleep...
And when Sam wakes up, the whole world has changed. Richard Matheson's classic science fiction-horror novel I Am Legend can legitimately be said to have been one of the most influential ever written, as far as pop culture goes, not so much for the adaptations of it to reach the screen over the decades, but for spawning the zombie genre as we know it today when George A. Romero used it as his jumping off point for the seminal cult classic Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Although the debt is plainly there to Romero, without Matheson there would be nothing in that strain of entertainment, making him one of the most important talents ever to put pen to paper.
Or put fingers to typewriter, however he did it, what's inescapable here was that The Night Eats the World brought the zombie style back to its survivalist roots, with one man against the world, holed up in the apartment block in Paris where as far as he can work out, everyone has either died or been infected with a disease that makes them undead and violent, determined to pass on the condition through biting. Actually, this was based on a novel by Pit Agarmen, but the siege theme was well noted as the source for zombie fiction, implemented over and over in various forms: no zombie movie worth its salt would be without a sequence where someone living was trapped by the dead.
Even an extended sequence, or a whole plot, as Romero portrayed it over and over in his original trilogy of shockers. Yet as this was a French film, there was a European sensibility to this, akin to Luc Besson's wordless tale of the post-apocalypse Le Dernier Combat, where the tiny number of survivors of a cataclysm are as much concerned with staving off a boredom that could lead to madness as they are getting enough to eat or shelter from the elements. With the Parisian terrorist attacks fresh in the mind when this was released, the idea that society could suddenly go insane for no reason that makes sense was another influence, and that isolation from being in a crowd in panic or rage was neatly conveyed by director Dominique Rocher, marking his first feature after a couple of shorter pieces.
Lie was a musician in his day job, though he dabbled in acting, and when you saw him showing off his musical skills when his character finds a kit, you had to admit that as an actor he made a terrific drummer. As long as he didn’t need to speak, his limitations did not matter too much, as we became engrossed in his day to day life as an enforced shut-in when the streets outside were teeming with the fevered undead. Rocher got quite some mileage out of presenting the problems his protagonist would face, then having him find solutions, but managed a genuinely unexpected twist that you feel you should have seen coming a mile off when another survivor shows up by breaking into the building and surprising him, she being Sara.
This young woman was played by Golshifteh Farahani, who frankly acted Lie off the screen with what few scenes she had, arriving at a point past the halfway mark but making a strong impression, so strong that perhaps the film could have done with her earlier, though then the examination of a descent into mania would not be as resonant. As a study of loneliness, on the other hand, The Night Eats the World struck a chord, the only interaction Sam can count on for long stretches of his new existence being the zombie trapped in the lift. When I tell you that zombie was played by the great Denis Lavant, who had no lines, it was apparent this was a cut above its numerous contemporaries when they were prepared to give the flesheater role to such a physically perfectionist performer. With its emphasis on struggling to stay sane in a world headed assuredly in the opposite direction, this worked up a very twenty-tens mood, maybe not as haunting as intended, it was too practical for that, but certainly vivid. Music by David Gubitsch.