Zombi Child (2019)
Several critics compared Zombi Child to I Walked with a Zombie, a horror classic from 1943 produced by the legendary Val Lewton. That is one of my favorite movies of all time, so understandably, such a comparison got my hopes really high. But in reality, the only thing they have in common is that they’re both old-fashioned, pre-Romero zombie stories, rooted in race, voodoo and colonialism.
The movie opens in Haiti, 1962, where a man, considered dead at the time but we later learned he was still alive, is buried, but eventually brought back to the living world, only to work as a slave on the sugarcane fields. 55 years in later, a young woman from Haitian descent named Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) joins the prestigious Légion d’Honneur boarding school in France. She quickly befriends a couple of young rich girls, who have their own literary sorority club, which is just an excuse to sneak out of their dorms and secretly drink liquor by candlelight. Her gateway into this clique is Fanny (Louis Labeque), who is completely transfixed by a brief romance she had last summer, like only a teenager with little experience in that department can. When Mélissa slowly starts opening up about her family’s history, Fanny’s dream world gets shattered and leaves her disillusioned, while the movie occasionally cuts back to enslaved ‘zombi’, whose fate is intertwined with that of our main protagonists, in a way that will come to no surprise of anyone who has seen more than 5 movies in their life.
The main attraction of this movie is that it’s the new offspring by notorious French director Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama, Saint Laurent), though I have not seen any of his prior work. He vaguely wrestles with concepts like class and race in this movie, in ways that feel almost uninspired, like in a rather flagrant moment for example, somewhere in the opening 20 minutes, where an unassuming teacher explains the entire theme of the movie during his lecture. The political implications here only seem to exist in the abstract. Sometimes the movie feels very much like a middle-aged man’s impersonation of what he thinks teenage girls nowadays are like (like one of them giving an entire presentation about Rihanna for their English class) but that is not to say those are completely unbelievable. Like whenever one of the teenagers is alone or has to wait for more than a second, they immediately pick up their phone, which I as a teenager myself can confirm is incredibly accurate. There is a restlessness with this current generation that is slowly taking over people in their thirties and forties as well, where everything has to go quicker, more efficient and as painless as possible. At one point, when talking about how zombies used to be far slower in movies, a character proclaims “Everything is faster nowadays, zombies too”.
But this casual attempt at humor, a brief glimpse of levity, gives the movie a sense of personality that it is often lacking. Zombi Child is a slow, very restrained film, which is mostly focused on character moments, while at the same time keeping the viewer at a distance. These last few years we’ve had several arthouse pictures, mostly coming out of the department of world cinema, that casually flirted with the horror genre (like Personal Shopper or Raw, both 2016 movies that I loved by the way) but never actually became one of them. Zombi Child seems to take the same route as those movies, safely dipping its toe into the water, until in the finale, it abruptly decides to properly dive in... and then just end all of a sudden, like there is a reel or two missing.
Bonello’s latest might not be a particularly great movies, nor one that should be allowed to be mentioned along a legit classic like I Walked With a Zombie, but it definitely left me thinking, and gave me material to write about.