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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Zombi Child’: Things could always get worse

Dan Webster

I've been spending a lot of evenings watching movies, which should come as no surprise to anyone. For one thing, I've been reviewing movies professionally for going on four decades now. For another, we're in the middle of an international health crisis, which I refer to in the review of the film "Zombi Child" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some would say a pandemic is no time to watch challenging cinema. Yet I disagree.

For one thing, I think any time is a good time to watch challenging cinema. For another, especially during a pandemic, it's comforting to know that things could always get worse.

That's one reason why I watched “Zombi Child” over the weekend. The other reason, of course, is that by doing so I was helping to support the Magic Lantern Theater, through which I streamed the movie.

But I was intrigued by the basic idea behind the movie anyway. Written and directed by French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello, “Zombi Child” plays on the conventions of the standard zombie flick as they've developed over the years – from 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie” to 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.”

And Bonello plays with other themes, too, most prominently that of teen lust, of voodoo culture and of the tortured legacy left by the fact of colonial oppression – each conveyed with an equal mix of attention and a curious lack of the same.

Bonello’s screenplay follows two major storylines. One begins in 1962, in Haiti, with a man named Clairvius falling under the spell of a voodoo curse. He collapses, seems to be dead, at any rate is buried, yet later dug up and – stumbling along in a classic zombie fugue state – is taken into the fields where he and a number of fellow sleepwalking captives are put to work.

Then we are transported to modern-day Paris where our attention is centered on a quintet of girls attending an elite boarding school. Two of the girls are featured. One is Fanny, a solitary type whose own kind of dream state revolves, naturally enough for a girl in her mid-teens, around a boy. The other is Mélissa, a Haitian refugee who came to Paris with her aunt following the devastating 2010 earthquake.

The two bond, again naturally enough, over – among other things – a shared love of Stephen King novels. But each keeps her inner life a secret – Fanny her longing for the teen hunk Pablo, Mélissa her connection to the dark religious forces of her native country.

The two stories slowly merge, with Fanny seeking out Mélissa’s aunt – a self-proclaimed “mambo,” or Haitian voodoo priestess – as a way of reclaiming her lost love. Meanwhile, back in Haiti itself, Clairvius by chance eats part of a chicken leg, which is enough to break the zombie spell, sending him on a quest to reclaim his former life.

Neither Fanny nor Clairvius – nor Mélissa, for that matter – has an easy path to tread. But at least some of what filmmaker Bonello intends, seemingly, is to show that persistence and faith can lead to better things while cultural appropriation – at least when used by the over-privileged for what are little more than frivolous purposes – can lead to nothing good.

I say “seemingly” because that’s just my guess. Bonello doesn’t wrap up his film with an easy ending, one that shows a clear delineation between forces good and bad – not in any way that fits in with the classic zombie genre.

Overall, though, his “Zombi Child” is a haunting watch, with long sequences of girls lounging, tortured – so to speak – by boredom … similar to the girls in Peter Weir’s 1975 mystery classic “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

The contrast between the Parisian girls’ experience and that of the Haitian man Clairvius tells you all that’s needed about the disparity between master and slave that, sad to say, has shaped so much of the world’s history.