Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is my favourite book of all time. Beyond its influence on horror (no I Am Legend, then no Night Of The Living Dead, no Stephen King, and nothing which either of those two examples have influenced) it remains a stone-cold classic, chilling, prescient, written with a surgeon’s precision and nerve, and it is filled with horror, humour, despair, and acceptance in defeat. It’s so rarely included on any best books of the 20th Century lists as to render those lists worthless. Aside from the many films, TV shows, and books which it has spawned, there have been a few direct or pseudo direct adaptations – The Last Man, The Omega Man, and Will Smith’s I Am Legend. None of those are worth watching more than once, and none come close to the majesty of Matheson’s original. Although it is completely unofficial and not mentioned anywhere as being an influence, The Night Eats The World is the best film version of Matheson’s story we have so far. Interestingly, the movie is in fact an adaptation of a different book by Pit Agarmen/Martin Page which I have not yet read but almost certainly borrows from Matheson.
Just to expand further on that point – both works see a man left seemingly alone in the world, surrounded by the undead. In I Am Legend they are vampires, and here they are zombies, but they are fairly interchangeable – all they want is to kill the lone survivor. The survivor in each spends his days barricading himself up, scavenging for food and supplies, keeping fit, and trying to not go insane. I Am Legend has a dog, The Night Eats The World has a cat. Both are character studies on the nature and notion of survival, on humanity, on loneliness, and while Matheson goes all in on the scientific side, here director Dominique Rocher is more concerned with philosophy, with tone, with cinema. Both works discuss whether the human is now useless – a soon to be extinct relic no longer required by nature and that the undead are the new normal. Our hero in the movie, Sam, discusses this as he descends into madness with a zombie named Alfred which he traps in a lift shaft. Those viewers looking for a straight horror movie may want to look elsewhere because while there are scares – effective ones – this is not supposed to be a visceral experience and instead is a rumination on existence when there seems to be no future – an idea so horrifying you’d struggle to name one worse.
Sam is a musician living in Paris. The film begins with him visiting an ex-girlfriend to pick up some of his recorded pieces of music. Unaware that she is having a monumental party in her apartment block he struggles with the pretentious people, the strangers, the crowds, and the sheer awkwardness of being there. With little to no dialogue or interaction we are put firmly in his shoes and know pretty much everything we need to know about him. A series of unfortunate events lead to Sam falling asleep in a locked room while the camera slowly zooms towards the door as familiar sounds of carnage erupt briefly. The next morning Sam wakes, finds the apartment empty but destroyed and filled with blood. He meets his zombified ex-girlfriend, locks himself away, and soon discovers that some cataclysmic event has unfolded leaving him abandoned an alone. Cultured viewers already know the zombie tropes, so the film doesn’t need to bore us with explanations or examples of how you’re turned, how to kill them, et cetera, and Sam simply resigns himself to the facts. He is alone, he needs food, he needs water, he needs shelter. The rest of the film is a showcase for these struggles, but more importantly what to do with his time and with his existence once these struggles have been overcome.
Sam is as uncomfortable with people as he is without. His descent towards insanity is gradual, shown in clever ways such as terrifying nightmares, possible hallucinations, definite hallucinations, and other subtle and not so subtle changes in his personality and actions. I’ve often wondered how I would cope under the same strains. Part of me thinks I would have the time of my life – free to do whatever I wanted and perfectly fine with never meeting another living soul again. Then again, that was before I had a family. And I’m essentially useless at DIY, cooking, farming, and anything else needed for surviving under these conditions. And most of the things I’d want to do would be rendered obsolete by the fact that electricity would be gone and a step outside would likely lead to certain death. Like many of its ilk, the film forces these questions and assumptions upon the viewer, though this is the most effective example I’ve seen since Dawn Of The Dead.
The film is a slow-burner. There is almost no dialogue, and any violence and action when it comes is swift and brief. For me this worked, especially knowing Sam’s character and within the self-defined constrictions of the piece, but I understand that other viewers may get frustrated or even bored by the unfolding story. A few negative reviews have gone so far as calling it dull and a few have been angered by the open-ended conclusion. This isn’t a film which has a beginning and an end. This is a few months in the life of a man trapped and buried by insurmountable odds, and the conclusion is simply one more step – a step towards more of the same, or a step towards whatever is next is down to the viewer to assess. Again, you’ve asked what you would do if faced with the same situation – what would you do faced with the ending?
Anders Danielsen Lie is an up and coming star, with a number of notable releases and performances in this and recent years. The film belongs almost entirely to him and the director, who I can only assume worked closely on most aspects. His performance is gritty and quietly powerful, avoiding many of the usual hallmarks of the ‘guy goes mad’ story. Without becoming too extreme in any single direction, he runs the gamut of emotions and remains convincing throughout. Rocher is surely a name to watch now too, the latest director to wield a more subtle approach to terrifying audiences, and I will be excited to see what her comes up with next. His camera rarely jump-cuts or moves beyond a pedestrian pace and he is more interested in how desolate a room or a city can look than how bloody a person can be when being torn to shreds. The decision to make zombies almost completely silent is more potent than it sounds and leads to some of the more frightening encounters in many years. A strong soundtrack fills out some of the empty spaces and a few supporting characters add to the overall quality and effect. Although I admit to being predisposed to loving this, it is a highly recommended voyage into the horror of solitude. Train To Busan came from nowhere and thrilled audiences and rejuvenated a genre everyone was sick with – The Night Eats The World does the same, but in an entirely different style. In a year where horror saw a number of major financial and critical successes, and in a year where I read countless best movie of the year posts featuring every Superhero movie under the sun, The Night Eats The World is not being discussed by anyone but should be leapfrogging its way onto every series movie fan’s list.