NYFF REVIEW: “The Only Thing Spookier Than the Undead is the White Male Gaze” – ‘Zombi Child’ (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 2.

“Seeing the girls as larger, abstract ideas instead of as human beings weighs down the overall film.”

In 1960s Haiti, a man named Clairvius Narcisse was said to have been poisoned and brought back from the dead as a zombie in order to be put to work as a slave on a plantation by a Bokor, a voodoo sorcerer. Once his master died two years later, he was doomed to roam the Haitian landscape aimlessly, caught between life and death. After eighteen years of being assumed dead, Narcisse returned home to his village, puzzling doctors and becoming one of the first ever medical “zombie” cases, which has never truly been solved.

This is the premise for Bertrand Bonello’s latest film Zombi Child, with the added fictional frame story of his granddaughter Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) and best friend Fanny (Louise Labeque) navigating life, friendships, and relationships in a strict, modern day Paris boarding school. The film flips between the zombie story and the present, intertwining toward the end. Fanny, a naïve, wealthy white girl who seems to be the protagonist here, asks Melissa to rush for her literary sorority (even though you never see any of the girls reading or discussing literature) and she accepts. In order to be accepted, Melissa tells the girls a poem about her undead grandfather which piques their interest – especially Fanny, who later misguidedly uses this information for the wrong reasons with dire consequences.

The film tries to blend horror and female teenage angst, two genres that go well together when done right. Zombi Child fails on both respects because Bonello takes himself too seriously; his insistence on seeing the girls as larger, abstract ideas instead of as human beings weighs down the overall film in a way that is impossible to ignore. Fanny and Melissa are not viewed as sexual objects, but they are not subjects with their own agency either; the only time Fanny makes a choice, it is written off as being due to overwhelming emotion. The girls listen to rap music and talk about having crushes, but their relationships never grow or develop. Consequently, the performances feel rote and robotic.

Audiences across racial/gender identities watch chick flick horror films such as The Craft (1996) and Jennifer’s Body (2009) over and over again not only because they are fun, but also because underneath the bloody mess they explore human elements such as friendship, betrayal, death and love. Bonello commits to neither Narcisse’s (Mackenson Bijou) story nor the story of the two women, alternating between them with unsatisfying results. Although there are some effectively scary moments toward the end, the real horror in Zombi Child is the way it uses mesmerizing, surreal cinematography in order to avoid actually saying anything meaningful.

Bonello never gets close enough to the girls to truly get to know them, their relationships to each other, or their relationship to men, such as Fanny’s doomed relationship with her boyfriend Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). Since the failure of this relationship is the tipping point for Fanny, one would think it would be central to the narrative, but the opposite is true: the story of their relationship is told in moments of voiceover and flashback, shot like a boring high budget music video. They never have a conversation. Why should the audience be so invested in this flimsy relationship that they should be willing to believe that Fanny would go to extreme measures to salvage it?

Perhaps the biggest failure of Zombi Child is the way it treats white French colonialism of Haiti like the elephant in the room by never addressing it or its consequences, yet tries to present itself as a “woke” retelling of a true zombie story. Although Fanny is naïve and not malicious in her intentions, that does not justify her actions. Bonello seems to think it does. White people might not mean harm, but their actions still have consequences on the lives of black people, which Bonello does not seem to want to talk about. The film ends before Fanny can face any consequences. She will wake up the next morning and continue to live her life, while Katy (Katiana Milfort), Melissa’s aunt, will not.

Dir: Bertrand Bonello

Prod: Bertrand Bonello, Judith Lou Levy

Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Adilé David