The French-language movie Les Affames (“The Ravenous”) isn’t out to reinvent the zombie movie. Canadian writer-director Robin Aubert is a fan of the genre, and he knows the tropes: the growing hordes of shambling monsters, the thrown-together crew of mismatched survivors, the sudden attacks that winnow them down one by one, the understanding that even a single bite can doom an otherwise healthy person. Aubert embraces all the usual business. And he clearly expects viewers know how these stories go too, because he skips the usual buildup and drops them right into the middle of the action. Les Affames, an indie movie now streaming on Netflix, launches with the zombie apocalypse well under way, and the protagonists well prepped on how to survive from day to day.
But then he adds his own twists on the genre. His zombies clearly feel pain, and they scream when injured. They’re up to some complicated collective project in a field. There’s a fair bit of mystery and even some poetry to their behavior. But it’s not a mystery Aubert is out to solve. I sat down with him to talk about how he made the movie with his family and friends on a shoestring budget, why he made his strange and specific choices, and why he hates the color green in movies.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There have been so many zombie films. Why did you want to make one?
Lots of people ask me this question! Is it because it’s zombies? As a kid, it was my dream to do a zombie film. I didn’t believe to be able to do this kind of film in Quebec. We’re from more a cinéma direct place. The genre film, it’s complicated in Quebec to believe in it, and also to finance it. So I didn’t believe in it.
My producer told me — we had a meeting because we wanted to work together. I was talking lots of idea I had for next film, and the idea came up. I was talking about [George] Romero, and Mario Bava, and [Dario] Argento, [Michelangelo] Antonioni, Robert Bresson. And she said, “You should do a zombie film, because when you talk zombie, stars pop in your eyes.” I said, “Okay, you want to do a zombie film. You know it’s going to be impossible in Quebec.” But when I start to write… maybe two years in, The Walking Dead went on TV, and it help us, because the financiers saw lots of popularity. So now it was a good thing to do a zombie film.
There are things about this movie that make it really distinctive and unusual for a zombie story. Did you focus specifically on how to stand out from other zombie films?
I didn’t want to reinvent the horror genre, or the zombie film. For me, what I like about a zombie film is that it’s a zombie film. It’s not that I wanted to make it original. I just have a point of view about the humanity of those zombies. And I think that’s the difference between my zombies, and those of another guy.
Because every auteur writes his point of view into a zombie film. When you start to write a zombie film, you realize you’re doing a social film, a political film. I didn’t know that before. This is my most political film, my most social film, because my zombies are a reflection of what I think about humanity. I didn’t realize that before. It was just a kid dream to do a zombie film. But I realized when you do a zombie film, it’s serious. It’s something deep. It’s not what people think it is: “Oh, you’re doing a slasher, doing a horror film,” they’re a little condescending. But I realize it’s more difficult to do a zombie film than other films.
My zombies are a reflection of what I think of humanity. People are scarier than zombies. If I’m in the woods and a zombie’s following me, I will be scared for sure. But if it’s a human who is crazy and he’s following me, I will run as hell.
The other thing is, I feel like we’re surrounded by zombies already. We don’t need the infection for that. That’s why I didn’t explain where the infection came from. We don’t need that. We’re already a little crazy in this society.
So that’s why I didn’t put all the explanations you see in lots of zombie films. As a viewer, I don’t like those scenes. I think it’s killing the dramatic sense of a film.
Your zombies are clearly people. They scream with pain when they’re hurt, which really undercuts the video game fantasy of a zombie movie, of living in a world where you can kill anything around you without moral consequence. Why did you take that approach?
I had the feeling that they scream because they want to get out of their bodies. Part of them knows they were human. We tried lots of sounds to make the zombies scary, but we realized that the real sound of the zombie was the sound of them, the actors. Every zombie who screams, it’s the actor. There’s a little added sound, maybe 30 percent, but when we tried more, it wasn’t real. I can’t tell you what other sounds, it’s a secret. But it’s mostly human. I told the actors, “You are a zombie, you rage. But have also sadness. So put in your scream a mix of sadness and rage.”
Why are people scarier than zombies?
That’s the best question I’ve had in all the interviews for my film, and I can’t answer it. Humans give me the creeps, and I don’t know why. I have hope in humanity. That’s why there’s lots of humor in the film, and that ending. I am a cheesy guy. And I’m scared for humanity. I’m scared about what’s happening around the world. That’s why I when I did the film, I realized, “Zombies are universal. When you do a zombie film, you can talk about lots of social stuff.”
Maybe it’s because I’m a hunter, and when you’re out and see another hunter, you have to worry, “Is he crazy?” Maybe it’s what I read every day. Zombies are scary, but not like people.
So what do you want to say about humanity here? There are obviously people in this film who aren’t crazy, who support each other. Is that an important part of the theme?
Well, I wrote this film in my barn. I was surrounded by green, and by people that I love, in my country. And I put together people I know, in this film. They didn’t end up together in real life. But if a zombie world arrived, maybe they would have stayed together. A good part of humanity, if something bad happened, they would get together to try to survive. That was important.
And then I said, “Okay, I’m in my town. I’m a survivor, and I see my mother, my sister, my father, my brother as zombies. What am I going to do? How am I willing to react? And I started there. To have people you know as zombies changed the way the film feels. Usually, you see a zombie, you don’t know it, you kill it. But if it’s your mother?
How did you approach working with the zombie actors?
It was easy, because all the zombies actually are my friends. My sister, my brother-in-law, my other sister, my best friend, my cousin. All the principal zombies you see are people I love in life. I said to them, “Be as yourself, but when you don’t feel good. Go find your madness that you have, that everybody has. It’s really a family business, this film, because every zombie is part of my family, or my friend. And I blow the head off of my brother, I kill my sister in the end, all this gory stuff, it’s crazy. But for me it’s an homage, to say I love them. [Laughs]
And you shot some of this in your own barn?
In the background, yeah. The horses you see at the end represent that they’re going to hell. They’re a symbol of death. They’re going to die. But those are my horses, so it was easy to shoot. It wasn’t easy to shoot all the smoke scenes, but the horses are easy. I don’t know if you noticed, but there are lots of animals in the film, and the zombies don’t kill the animals. For me, the zombies are maybe the revenge of nature. I just didn’t want to explain that. At the beginning, my script had narration at the beginning and end. I just realized it’s wasn’t the film talking, it was the author, wanting to explain to everybody what the film is about. And the images already say that. [That’s why the lizard, the inchworms, the cat. -possible cut]
That mist sequence is so amazing and visually striking. How did you achieve that effect?
Oh, it was complicated. Where I am from, there are lots of valleys, and in the morning, lots of fog gathers there. So in the film, you see lots of fog that’s real. But for the end, we created the fog. It was complicated, because fog isn’t like actors, or horses. You can’t direct it. We made it with machines. We couldn’t use digital. Have you seen [the 2005 remake of] The Fog? It was not good, because of the CGI. If you create fog with CGI, it looks like plastic.
For me, though, these scenes were an homage to John Carpenter [who directed the original 1980 version of The Fog], and maybe a little bit to Italian film, to Antonioni, and to [Federico] Fellini. I love how the fogginess gives us a feeling of something not quite real. The rest of the film is quite real, but not this part.
The lighting in this film also reminded me of Antonioni. It’s so luminous. What effect did you want out of your lighting?
I wanted real light. All the light that you see in the film is from the sun, except in the house, in the night. We got lucky — sometimes the sun would come between the trees with a surrealistic image like a German film. I like natural light. And now with the camera we can do more natural light. We used the Arri Alexa, the new small one. It’s very compact. It’s a very good camera. This was my first time shooting digitally. I wanted to try it, because I wanted green in this film. I don’t like green. For me, green is aggressive. But I wanted it in this film, because the green represents something. Lots of zombie films take place at night, but this one, there’s only one night scene, and the rest is green.
Why do you consider green aggressive?
It’s not a good color in film! In life, I like green. I love the countryside. But the camera doesn’t like it. It pops too much. I wanted to do this film in black-and-white, but I realized while writing, I needed all that green that aggressed me so. You don’t consider green aggressive?
Not really, I think of it as a softer color. I think of red as aggressive. But then, red is usually all over zombie movies.
I love red. I love blood. [Laughs] It’s fashion, it’s the color of life, and death, and sex. Green is like a mistake. But now I have made peace with green.
Going back to how zombie movies are always political and social, does this film tie into recent politics for you?
I’ve seen reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and they are better than me to explain the thoughts that I have. They see the same thing I see, but say it better. I do think that one day, if a zombie world exists, women will be the survivors. Not men. Men are too weak. If there’s another revolution in the world, I think it’s going to be a woman who survives first. And I think nature is going to come back against us, stronger than it is.