There are any number of horror films about “voodoo” magic and its colonialist underpinnings — Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 “I Walked with a Zombie” remaining the most formative example — but only Bertrand Bonello’s take on the subject includes an oral presentation on the life and times of Rihanna. It would be foolish to expect anything else from the firebrand director behind “House of Pleasures” and “Nocturama,” whose films see history as less of a forward march than an uneasy churn; his work obfuscates clearly delineated temporalities in order to emphasize that while everyone may live in the present the past is never really dead.
As its title suggests, “Zombi Child” finds Bonello taking that idea to its logical and most literal conclusion. Not only does this time-hopping curio riff on the true-ish story of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was said to have been turned into the walking dead, it also threads in a parallel narrative that follows Narcisse’s (fictional) granddaughter as she attends an elite — and predominantly white — boarding school in present-day Paris, where she and her only surviving relative have relocated after the earthquake that devastated their home island in 2010.
Folding history onto itself more explicitly than any of Bonello’s previous films, “Zombi Child” peels back centuries of racist stereotypes to rescue Voodoo from the stuff of black magic and portray it instead as a kind of communion — a communion between spirits, a communion between generations, and a communion between the dislocated joints of an empire. As a horror movie, it all works better in the abstract, but even the most terrifying scenes are rooted in something real.
“Zombi Child” is undoubtedly a horror movie, though not in the ways you might expect. For one thing, the Clairvius Narcisse stuff, set in Haiti circa 1962, is the less frightening and more poetic of the two plotlines. Shot in a dreamlike day-for-night and crafted with the inquisitiveness of someone who can’t understand why the world is so cruel, these scenes patiently observe as Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) falls dead in the middle of the street, only to be summoned back to life. Or, at least, spirited back to something that vaguely resembles life. He’s dug out of his grave, assigned to a chain gang with his fellow members of the walking dead, and put to work in the fields. But a chance encounter with a bite of chicken restores a measure of Clairvius’ humanity — though it may be his memory that comes back to him first — and set him on a spirit quest through the dark blue Haitian night as he regains the strength that was taken from him.
Meanwhile, in the modern world, a girl named Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) is struggling to fit in at a stuffy boarding school that was founded by Napoleon, and only opens its doors to the offspring of those who have been awarded the Legion of Honor. She’s the only black student on campus, and she might be totally shunned if not for the attentions of Fanny (Louise Labeque), who bonds with Mélissa over their shared passion for the novels of Stephen King. But new friends come with new alienations — Mélissa feels uneasy about the group’s overall disinterest in who she is, where she comes from, and even the music she likes — and that attempt to smother her identity provokes her to more deeply connect with what that identity means to her.
The giallo touches (a harmonium score, supernatural forces, guttural noises coming from the bathroom in the girls’ dormitory) are on a low boil from the moment Bonello steps into this part of his story, but they go into overdrive when Fanny — a self-involved brat who’s heartbroken after being dumped by her perpetually shirtless boyfriend — learns of Mélissa’s bloodline. Not only does Fanny tune out her loquacious professor, but she’s so wrapped up in her own drama that she doesn’t even listen to herself speak.
Fanny is smart enough to know that the past informs every part of her present, and that history isn’t restricted to the Jules Michelet books she reads for class; she’s smart enough to know that time is relative, and that objects in the rear-view mirror are always closer than they appear (“It’s 15 minutes later than it was two hours ago” is her pithy response to a moment of boredom). But Fanny isn’t smart enough to realize that her boy troubles may not require the urgent need of Voodoo magic in the same way that the slave trade did. While Bonello entertains the notion that all suffering feels equally clear and present to those experiencing it, he’s also happy to coerce Fanny over the line, as the girl’s blithe exploitation of a culture she doesn’t understand sends her to Mélissa’s aunt, a professional mambo, with a giant stack of her parents’ cash in hand.
While “Zombi Child” may sound like a dedicated corrective to centuries of racist depictions of Voodoo practices, Bonello only rights those wrongs as a means to an end. Hardly a natural vessel for such pure altruism, the filmmaker has bigger — or at least less obvious — fish to fry. He’s less interested in restoring the reputation of a misunderstood religious practice than he is in using Voodoo as a lens through which to look at the hazy nature of cultural memory, take the long view of cultural appropriation, and re-imagine the ways that history might crawl its way out of the grave.
That’s a lot to handle for a horror movie that’s constantly skipping between two hemispheres and several different sub-genres, and in some respects it’s a lot more ambitious than Bonello’s previous work. If “Zombi Child” gets snared in a web of symbols and ideas that it never fully manages to weaponize in its favor — and a “Hereditary”-esque possession sequence at the end suggests that Bonello is so desperate to make that happen that he neglects the connection between the two sides of his story — it still provides a bold and compelling bridge between the living and the dead.
“Zombi Child” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.