Whilst The Dead Don’t Die failed to offer any originality to the zombie genre, Jarmusch’s undead were not the only ones to stagger across Cannes’ screens. Zombi Child by Bertrand Bonello, featured in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, draws upon Haitian zombie and voodoo culture to tell its tale of a Haitian teenage girl at a French boarding school.
Unlike the modern zombie which is created by a plague or rises from the dead as a signifier of the approaching apocalypse. Haitian zombis do not come to existence in mass hoards but are created individually using a powder which reincarnated the dead, wiping their memories and making them obey their creators. Often used, as in the case of Clairvius who was a character based on a historic case of a voodoo created zombi (Mackenson Bijou), as a way to enslave an enemy.
Zombi Child flits back and forth between the zombi life of Clairvius in Haiti in the 1960s, to the present-day life of Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) as she starts her new life in France. Clairvius walks the line between life and death, slave and freed man, simultaneously Melissa struggles with her dual identity. What she knows to be true of the Haitian zombi becomes intertwined with western tropes, as cannibalistic urges arise. As she tries to keep her Haitian heritage alive, she hides her music tastes and much bigger secrets from her new posh white peers.
Nothing is to be expected in this undead horror. The zombi narrative running parallel to Melissa’s does not bring about fear. Clairvius is the romantic hero of the film, rather than the salivating undead villain. The sorority that Melissa pledges allegiance to, is actually more of an excuse for the members to drink and listen to Belgian rapper Damso. Resulting in a bizarrely beautiful capturing of young teenage life as the candlelit girls rap: ‘I don’t care about your boyfriend, It’s your ass that I want’. As any good horror movie, no jump scare comes from where you would expect. Bonello’s use of classic horror makes the audience do the leg work, as presuppositions of the genre cause you to work yourself up, as you find yourself consistently (wrongly) predicting the fate of the film.
As well as the building sense of dread which was to be expected, I found myself dreading a narrative turn which would result in the monstrous othering of the film’s Haitian leads. Whilst voodoo is often depicted as a dangerous malevolent force, Bonello does well to depict its duality. Demonstrating fearful elements but predominantly presenting voodoo as magic tradition which marks momentous occasions of celebration as well as showing mourning in a uniquely vivacious and cathartic way.
Zombi Child is a fresh much needed addition to the undead genre, which has been largely white-washed by Western cinema. Not only because of its return to the zombi origins, but due to the subtle nuances with which it does so. Bonello’s respectful representation of Haitian voodoo drives the film into a more magical realist setting than if it was derived solely from a gothic perspective. Whilst hinting at a critique of French colonialism with one foot in the past and the other firmly in the present.
Words, Billie Walker – @queen.feta