Ravenous (2017) Directed by Robin Aubert. Starring Marc-André Grondin, Monia Chokri and Charlotte St-Martin. In a tiny and remote Quebec town, a plague turns neighbors into hungry monsters and a handful of survivors must fight back against hordes of the living dead.
We open on a field shrouded in mist. Barely visible at the treeline are a group of the undead. The scene moves to a nearby racetrack, where a driver makes out with his girlfriend at the edge of the track. They notice a bloody, furious-looking young woman staring at them from several feet away. She suddenly sprints forward and bites open the girlfriend’s throat. The thunderous engines obscure the screams as the victim sprays arterial blood everywhere.
So it looks like “Ravenous” is NOT going to be a slow burn kinda flick. We’ve got a zombie attack within the opening 2-minute mark. And these screeching sprinters have little in common with Romero’s slowly shuffling ghouls. They’re more along the lines of the infected ragers from “28 Days Later.”
Out in the country, artfully crafted chaos has ensued. An overturned car trailing children’s flip-flops and a purse lies on the side of a dirt road. A man in his 60s named Real suddenly bursts into view, takes a breath and keeps running deeper into the foliage. Seconds later, he is pursued by an enraged zombie sprinting at full speed. Then, two more.
At a farmhouse in a vast clearing, a crying boy named Ti-Cul sits near a fresh grave. He straps on a backpack and a rifle and frees the family horse before walking off into the unknown. In the nearby woods, two men named Vezina and Bonin burn the bodies of zombies they’ve killed. They trade dirty jokes as smoke from the charred remains rises into the trees.
In town, an abandoned cow eats a front lawn as middle-aged housewife Celine pulls her car over. She turns up the volume on her radio and opens the driver’s side door to attract her undead prey. When the first zombie stumbles awkwardly into view, she unsheaths a machete and goes to work. In a brilliant bit of filmmaking, we see the creature being dismembered only through the dirty and nearly opaque rear window of the vehicle. We see the splashes of dark blood across the filthy glass, hear the wet sounds of the blade slicing into meaty flesh and the guttural yelps of rage from Celine. We know exactly what is happening, even if we can’t see it clearly. Being blocked from viewing the carnage creates a sense of tension and anticipation.
After the killing, Celine cools off for a bit in her car. A small undead boy in a raincoat approaches the car and stares at her mindlessly, prompting the woman to move on.
Bonin and Vezina cruise down a rural road with thick forests on either side. They pass a narrow pathway cut into the trees that leads to a woodland house in the distance. Even from the road, they can clearly see a mother and her small daughter standing motionless on the path. They are obviously waiting for human prey to come along. Vezina recognizes the woman as Janie, the mom of a little girl who went to school with his own daughter and decides to engage her. He is lured into a deadly trap by the spooky, grinning Janie. Though Vezina survives, he is bitten on the neck.
In the uncharted forest, Real has given up fleeing. He waits on his knees for the creatures rushing towards him, but they never make it. Ti-Cul steps from the green shadows and blows them away. We learn that one of the zombies chasing Real was his beloved wife.
On the side of the road, Vezina and Bonin reflect on their lives and what they would’ve done differently if they’d known The End was nigh. As the conversation winds down, Vezina dies from his wound. Afterwards, Bonin speeds through the countryside in his pickup truck, past the undead eyes of eerie onlookers standing on front porches and in doorways. At a hunting camp, Bonin reunites with a surly survivalist friend of his who chops Vezina’s body into pieces with an axe. The man is dressed in camouflage and wears a ski mask in camo pattern.
After burying their friend, Bonin discovers a woman named Tania tied down to his old bunk in the camp. We learn that she claimed a dog bit her and that she’s not infected, though precautions still have to be taken. Bonin tells her a very discouraging bedtime story.
“Want to know what’ll happen? At first, you’ll start to feel weird. Does it come from the air, the water, our genes? Who knows? You’ll think it’s a headache. You’ll feel nauseous. The next day, you’ll get blotches on your skin. You’ll want to see the doctor. Like everyone else, he’s vanished into thin air. Another day goes by. You start to feel stronger. Even if your fingers turn black and you spit up molasses. The next thing you realize, you’re kneeling on the kitchen floor, gnawing on your kid’s guts.”
Great story, Bonin. I think she wanted to hear the one where this is all going to be okay, but yours was also very nice.
Tania reveals that she heard not a word of his tale because her ears were plugged by her captor. She also swears that she really was attacked by a dog. During their chat, Bonin’s camouflaged buddy is on high alert after hearing some strange noises. Unfortunately, his alert needed to be higher and he is slaughtered. At the sounds of his screams, Bonin frees Tania and they make for the pickup truck.
Before taking off, there’s an eerie moment where they pause and watch the still and silent forest with dark expectation.
Quiet is the signature weapon “Ravenous” uses to terrify us.
A character looks one way through the dense woods, looks the other way and relaxes just as a zombie pops up next to them stealthily. The film is set in a community blocked in by deep woods with good reason. The peace and stillness of the surrounding forest are deceptive, and that’s where the scares come from.
Here’s a pro tip for zombie survival: if you’re driving through a forest teeming with hundreds of running undead, roll your windows up. An open window can lead to your skull also being opened by a determined rotter. Keep that in mind, and you’ll keep your mind inside your head.
The chase through the woods gives our first big gory zombie kill, a nicely executed shotgun decapitation. The look of the neck stump is fantastic.
While contemplating where to head next, Bonin and Tania are unexpectedly approached by bumbling military cadet Demers. He’s an old friend of Bonin’s and utterly unaware of what’s happening in town. He tells the pair that he ran into a woman from town who tried to bite him, leaving him totally confused. After chatting briefly, he sets off for his parent’s home on foot. Demers turns up twice more, and he is solid gold. Love this guy.
Celine stops to steal gas from a homestead and finds herself held at gunpoint by two older women, Therese and Pauline. She is forced to strip as they inspect her body for bite wounds. Afterward, she is handed a beer and told to take as much gas as needed.
In the deep woods, Real explains his emotional state to Ti-Cul.
“I let my emotions get the better of me. When I should’ve been fleeing my wife and son, all I wanted to do was turn and shout ‘I love you.’”
We see a bleak flashback to Ti-Cul on the farm bitterly executing his infected parents. This heartbreaking scene underscores the melding of two opposing themes in “Ravenous:” the surrealistic and dreamlike abandoning of civilization that mirrors widespread cult behavior, and the harsh taste of bitter reality that cuts through the dream.
Although the cause of the plague is biological and viral, there’s a curious sense that these formerly human creatures have entered a kind of telepathic hive mind state and that they are not simply hollow husks of their former selves. They’ve become something alien and deadly, but they haven’t devolved into mindless eating machines. There’s something more at play. Are they attacking us a means of protecting their evolving culture? Imagine if you woke up one morning and found that your friends, family and entire neighborhood had joined a cult overnight. And they want you for theirs.
Typically, being bitten by a zombie in a movie is the end. But what if it was actually the beginning of an evolution?
Back on the road, Bonin and Tania investigate an abandoned house for supplies. There, they encounter young Zoe. She’s been running around with pale makeup on her face pretending to be a zombie for survival’s sake. To entertain the child, Bonin launches into the kind of jokes he used to share with Veniza.
From their home, Pauline and Therese radio Bonin. This revelation that the two older women are his allies draws the storylines of survivors Celine and Bonin together. Now we just need Ti-Cul and Real to get in on this.
Celine elected to not gas up her car and leave. She stayed on, and her hosts are grateful for her obvious expertise in handling weapons and dispatching the undead.
On their journey back to Therese’s ranch, Bonin, Tania and Zoe spend the night in an armored RV that serves as a safe house for endangered travelers. While squatting to go to relieve herself in knee-deep ferns near the vehicle, Tania is stalked by a zombie. She presses herself to the ground and watches his decaying feet as they zip through the plants straight towards her. After a narrow escape, Tania has a panic attack and Zoe reveals that the person she misses most in the world is her cousin, Ti-Cul.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
The ever clueless Demers pops up again, still unsure why odd looking people are chasing him around town. He directs Bonin to investigate a nearby highway, and what is found there shall not be spoiled in this review. It changes the nature of the invasion and casts the zombies in a new, more complicated light.
The disparate groups of survivors finally converge on Therese’s compound. They meet Celine, who informs them of the looming problem they’re about to have. Tania’s bandaged dog bite becomes the topic of heated debate, and the zombies eventually attack en masse during a terrifying fight in a dark forest.
Everything draws to an epic close in a bloody battle between the survivors and legions of the undead, after which Celine wins the Academy Award for Best Rapid Limb Severing. She’s amazing.
The ending is everything the preceding film embodied: bleak and yet hauntingly beautiful.
I have a complicated relationship with zombie movies and shows. I loved Romero’s Night, Dawn and Day for their elements of sociological commentary and groundbreaking makeup and effects. I loved the energetic 2004 “Dawn Of The Dead” remake with Sarah Polley, and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” But nowadays it just seems like there’s too many of them, particularly if you watch indie films.
Part of that trend explosion may be related to the success of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but even that hit television series lost its way narratively several seasons ago. The writers ran out of plausible ways to put the heroes in danger, so they resorted to having characters inexplicably become complete morons who attract deadly situations.
Like the rotting Walkers themselves, the series simply exists without intelligence or purpose.
As cinematic monsters go, it’s pretty easy to realize your own zombie flick. Pick up some cheap makeup and a horde of unpaid buddies, and you’ve got yourself an outbreak. That ease of realizing the concept has led to a glut of low budget time wasters fatally infected with that dreaded feeling of uninspired sameness. It’s gotten to the point now that if I know there’s a zombie in a trailer I’m about to watch, I skip it. I revere the legendary classics of the subgenre, but I haven’t witnessed any recent forward creative momentum. A visionary with a new angle on an old monster COULD produce something special, though. And with this film, that is exactly what transpired.
“Ravenous” is easy to enjoy. The cinematography is innovative and the isolated and wild setting absolutely gorgeous. Outside of the scenic 1984 slasher film “The Prey,” rarely have I seen lush forests and green meadows so lovingly captured on film. The technical aspects, sound design and bloody practical makeup effects are all exceptionally handled. It’s not hard to see why Netflix shelled out a few bucks to acquire this subtitled French Canadian winner.
I liked the payoff of certain plot points, like the violent conclusion to Demers’s idiotic confusion and the convincing nature of little Zoe’s zombie impersonation in a tense moment. This one is something special.