‘Zombi Child’ Mixes Voodoo And Girls Prep School
More social commentary than horror in this French import
Thursday, February 13, 2020
"I Walked With A Zombie" (1943)
"Zombies of Sugar Hill" (1974)
"Serpent and the Rainbow" (1983)
"Night of the Living Dead’s" George A. Romero would have been 80 years old this month. So what better tribute to the father of the modern zombie than to have a new French film called “Zombi Child” (opening at Digital Gym Cinema) reanimate the genre with a fresh take on the undead.
Zombies have always been a wonderful blank slate for social commentary. George A. Romero’s shambling undead defined the modern zombie in the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” and addressed issues of race and class.
But the Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the word “zombie” has West African origins and was first recorded in English in 1819. In cinema history, the first onscreen zombies could trace their roots to Haitian voodoo. In the 1930s and '40s zombie films (“White Zombie,” “I Walked With A Zombie”) drew on voodoo in which zombies were beings that no longer possessed free will and were controlled by someone else. These early film zombies reflected the inhumanity of slavery and addressed issues of colonialism.
That sense of Haitian voodoo history is revived and re-examined in Bertrand Bonello’s “Zombi Child” in which a black teenager at a French girls prep school calls upon her “zombi voice” to reveal a family secret about a man brought back from the dead and slavery.
The film draws on a fact-based case of zombieism involving a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse who supposedly was turned into a zombie by a Haitian voodoo preparation involving (as the film shows) a paralyzing pufferfish and possibly some other ingredients. The film presents this case at face value and isn’t interested in debating whether it is fact or legend.
The film opens with Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) being turned into a zombie, forced into slave labor, and losing the woman he loves in 1962 Haiti. The film then jumps to present-day Paris at an exclusive girls' prep school where Fanny (Louise Labeque) pines for a boy she loves and hangs out with a clique of girls who run their own kind of secret sorority. At first, we are given no connection between the two stories and timelines.
Fanny has asked Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a young black girl, to join their club. The initiation involves telling a story about herself, something personal, that will impress the other girls. This is when Melissa calls on her zombie voice to tell the story of Narcisse, who is a relative of hers.
The film does not serve up any conventional horror but it conveys the horror of Narcisse’s condition and loss of identity. His story also serves up a kind of political horror tale addressing issues of cultural colonialism and using the backdrop of an elite French boarding school to give it all a modern context.
Bonello gives the film a hypnotic visual style and languorous, elliptical narrative style. He cleverly weaves multiple stories, timelines and notions of being a zombie to deliver a meditation on identity and cultural colonialism. It’s flawed but still compelling with lovely performances from its young cast.
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