The zombie phenomenon can be traced back to Haiti in 1962 in this arthouse mediation.
IMDB Synopsis: Haiti, 1962. A man is brought back from the dead to work in the hell of sugar cane plantations. 55 years later, a Haitian teenager tells her friends her family secret – not suspecting that it will push one of them to commit the irreparable.
The synopsis, and trailer kind of belie what Zombi Child is. Touted as horror or at least thriller, the French film (without US distribution as of this posting) is much more languorous and, at times, aimless film. But maybe that’s not bad thing. The cinematography toggles between ethereal, day-for-night cinematography in the Haitian countryside and tense, taut precision in a prestigious French school. But whether or not the story is completely structurally sound, Zombi Child is less of your average fare, and more of a meditation of Haitian Voudo, classism, racism and the roots of where the zombie myth comes from.
The film follow two distinct storylines that interweave in a narrative, yet ultimately unimportant way. The first is set in Haiti in 1962 and is a take on the real life Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), the first purported “zombie,” which was most likely a result of potential toxic poisoning by his brother and/or graverobbers/slavers… and years of exaggeration and hyperbole. The film follows his death, funeral rites, unearthing, wandering, and ultimately returning a “free” man. This timeline shows also provides gorgeous visuals to our present day narrator’s exposition.
The second storyline follows Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a student at the prestigious, nearly all-white boarding school and as we come to learn, is Clairvius’s granddaughter. She’s befriended by Fanny (Louise Labeque), a boy-obsessed girl at the same school, and the rest of Fanny’s clique—more privileged French schoolgirls obsessed with their phones and drinking gin at midnight. The scenes jump from the mundane of school to the thrill of sneaking out, to the reveal of Mélissa’s true heritage. It’s in this setting the film has more of an austere thriller feel which is in sharp contrast to the breezy and culturally rich feel of Haiti.
Without giving too much away, the film meanders to a scene involving Haitian Vodou, some cultural appropriation commentary, and a very freakish Fanny-as-Vodou-God-Of-Death, Baron Samedi. By film’s end, it’s clear that this isn’t popcorn entertainment (in a good way), rather a messy and beautiful meditation on the origin of zombies, a case for multiculturalism, and why you shouldn’t call on the Vodou gods. Oh, and it’s got more laughs and witty commentary than expected, which was a nice surprise.
Highlights: Louise Labeque gives a great performance as a privileged, heartbroken brat who is in over her head. The opening shot of cutting up a pufferfish is magnificent.
MVP: Haiti. The setting during the Clairvius scenes is gorgeous. The funeral and celebration scenes are brimming with life and vibrancy. Undoubtedly the MVP.
Should you see it: It doesn’t even have US distribution yet, but it’s an interesting arthouse take on the zombie narrative. 7.25/10.
Studio: Cineuropa // Original release date: May 17, 2019 (Cannes)