Over the decades, zombie movies have evolved into the pop songs of the horror genre, following the same familiar beats with varying results. Typically, they involve some kind of sudden outbreak, followed by an act or two in which survivors figure out that carnivorous undead lurk around every ominous corner. There’s usually some combination of decomposing flesh, frantic musings on morality, and dime-store social commentary. “Night Eats the World” checks all those boxes, but this first feature from French director Dominique Rocher fuses them into an extraordinary meditation on loneliness and despair. For the recluse at the movie’s center, zombies provide just another excuse to shun the outside world.
As “Night Eats the World” begins, moody instrumentalist Sam (the great Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie) attains a lively party where he feels out of place. Heading to an empty room to brood, he promptly falls asleep; when he wakes up, he finds the apartment wrecked and caked in blood. A few party stragglers roam the streets, their eyes white and their jaws dangling loosely in search of human meat. Peering out the window, Sam witnesses a horrific slaughter that puts his conundrum in context: He’s trapped in an empty building, maybe forever.
So far, so “28 Days Later,” but Sam’s adventure doesn’t involve much exposition. Instead, “Night Eats the World” embarks on a complex meditation that makes it the most innovative zombie movie since Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” As with that striking debut with a distinctive vision, the zombie trope provides a template for exploring other genre elements; here, it becomes an actor’s showcase as well. Best known as the drug-addled star of “Oslo, August 31st,” Lie makes for a terrific passive-aggressive centerpiece.
Sam roams the empty building for days that turn into weeks; time become a loose, intangible thing, as the movie sits within the confines of his isolated surroundings. Rocher’s script, which draws from Pit Agarmen’s novel, emphasizes quiet scenes that find Sam roaming the vacant building, exploring the detritus of lost lives as if stuck in the limbo of a world that moved on. In the process, he comes across a striking quasi-companion trapped in an elevator shaft — “Holy Motors” star Denis Lavant as a bald, helpless older zombie with the expressivity of a silent film performance. One of the greatest zombie creations since the brainless consumers of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Lavant’s role helps complicate the movie’s soul.
In the dead man’s sad, milky eyes, Sam finds a reflection of his own melancholic state, but the movie doesn’t simply linger in it. A brilliant musician, he eventually composes rhythms from the objects he finds around the building, leading to a series of wondrous moments that crystallize his rage — a “Stomp”-like arrangement in the kitchen suggests the hint of hope, while another scene finds him unleashing a tantrum with a drum solo that brings the zombies to his window sill, grasping for the survivor like a goth-afflicted mosh pit.
As a post-apocalyptic chamber drama, “Night Eats the World” may call to mind “I Am Legend,” but it’s far more sophisticated in its ambitions. As Sam makes his way through creaky rooms, broken floors and windows, Sam becomes a Kafkaesque wanderer whose grip on reality becomes suspect. At one point, he encounters a woman played by stellar Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahan (whose credits include Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”), and Sam’s uneasiness with companionship makes it clear that on, on some level, the zombie apocalypse is a perfect excuse for his misanthropy.
At times, the movie’s listlessness feels redundant, as if the material needed padding to become feature length. While Rocher’s crisp imagery and steady camerawork keep the haunting atmosphere intact, on the occasion that the character does speak, he doesn’t have much to say. In a weak monologue to his zombie acquaintance, he bemoans that “I’m the one who’s not normal now,” and it’s one of a few blunt observations that elucidate the movie’s key strengths — a fixation on the wordless malaise of living alone and resenting every moment.
Does Sam escape this private hell? A few unexpected developments in the final act leave this question dangling. Even as the story drifts off, “Night Eats the World” derives its power from a beguiling, provocative implication: It’s hard to confront a hostile world, but gathering the courage to do so doesn’t make the job any easier.
“Night Eats the World” made its North American premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.