NYFF – ‘Zombi Child’ is a Haunting Interrogation of Past and Present

What do trash-talking French boarding school snobs and a legendary, zombified Haitian man have in common? Director Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama) attempts to thread the needle between the sins of a colonialist past and the woes of modern-day teenagers in his 2019 film Zombi Child, in which a group of mischievous, moody friends inducts a new girl, the weird girl, into their fold. Fictional, Haitian-born Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) is given ties to the real-life aforementioned “zombie man,” Clairvius Narcisse (played by Mackenson Bijou), who allegedly died from a combination of psychoactive substances, including pufferfish venom, in a Haitian vodou preparation back in 1962 – only to resurface eighteen years later. 

A moody slow-burn almost to a fault, the film recontextualises the outdated vodou horror trope and provides both the cultural history it is warranted and the real-world implications it carries. It creates a mesmerising, meaningful narrative as it shifts between Clairvius being reanimated in Haiti and the girls at their elite, modern-day boarding school for children of military alumni, as the sins of the past carry into the sins of the present.

Shy Melissa befriends a smitten girl named Fanny (Louise Labeque, utterly enchanting and exquisitely devious), precocious, self-centered, but nonetheless kind and open to giving the new girl a chance in her gang. Fanny and her friends comprise a secretive “literary sorority” that meets at night in the school’s library after hours, and is, in actuality, just an excuse to drink alcohol, dance, and gossip. Despite her friends’ initial hesitation to allowing Melissa into their good graces, Fanny convinces them to give Melissa a chance. Melissa eventually reveals to them that her parents died in an earthquake back in 2010, and that she lives with her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), a “mambo” – a word for a female priestess in Haitian vodou religion. After discovering this, the girls begin researching vodou in gratuitous YouTube videos and soon become overly suspicious of Melissa.

Fanny occasionally narrates over the film in wooing messages she’s sent to her beau, a young man named Pablo, who is due to visit her in the coming days and whose arrival Fanny anticipates with bated breath. When Pablo unexpectedly breaks her heart just before his promised return, Fanny desperately seeks out Melissa’s aunt to perform a ritual on her to let Pablo’s spirit enter her body, throwing down wads of cash as Katy wrestles with whether or not she should help. In the meantime, we are given a window into the life, and death, and life again of Clairvius, as the film opens with the scene of him preparing his blowfish and soon succumbing to its lethal aftereffects. When he eventually emerges from his own grave, he experiences visions of a lost love while he’s forced into menial sugarcane field work with other equally vacant, sluggish labourers.

The way the film splices together the paralleling narratives is not entirely inconspicuous in its intentions, even from the first scene of the French school girls listening to a lecture in class. The overwhelmingly white classroom is punctuated only by Melissa’s outlying presence, Fanny’s friends’ suspicions of Melissa made that much murkier because of it. It’s made clear that the girls are privileged, ignorant, and often unkind, as Melissa finds herself at a crossroads between who she is and who her new friends wants her to be, while Fanny is mostly occupied by thoughts of quixotic adolescent desire. The film weaves commentary on cultural appropriation and Hollywood’s long existing trope of black characters utilising mysticism and “voodoo” to support the goals of primarily white protagonists, enhancing the cultural context of real Haitian vodou and depicting Fanny’s selfish desire to exploit Katy as that of a spoiled, oblivious child.

Though the overall narrative occasionally feels like a camera going in and out of focus, the ever-present atmosphere of unease and haunting cinematography (including a scene towards the finale which feels straight out of Twin Peaks: The Return) keeps Zombi Child staggering slowly along as an engaging and political piece of cinema. “Everything movies faster now,” Melissa ruminates to Fanny and her friends, “zombies too.” Indeed, the world has changed, and zombies have changed with them. Iterations of zombies will shift but they will still be zombies. The crimes of the past are not entirely stricken from the present, and they might yet come to eat us alive.

 

by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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