One of my favourite films at last year’s French Film Festival was Dominque Rocher’s and beautifully made, melancholy zombie flick, The Night Eats the World, so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to watch this year’s French Film Festival undead offering, ZOMBI CHILD. On the plus side, it resides in the former of my two categories. It’s most certainly a thought-provoking and well considered film that, in the zombie genre, is about as far away from brain eating as you can get. On the downside, though, it's a bit of a ramshackle story that leaps, chaotically, back and forth in time as it tries to draw us in to two or three different aspects of a more ‘authentic’ zombie story that spans three generations but ultimately struggles to properly or coherently tell any of those stories in a satisfying way.
I say ‘authentic’ because ZOMBI CHILD is based on the supposed true zombie story about Haitian man Clairvius Narcisse, who was reportedly poisoned and buried by white colonists in 1962 and then exhumed and given a voodoo toxin that brought him partially but not fully back to life and, in this zombie state, was indentured into labour on a sugar plantation, only to escape and reveal his living self to his village and his family eighteen years after his assumed death. If this story sounds familiar, it might be because Wes Craven told it in his 1988 film version of Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman’s screen adaptation of ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow (It was Davis who discovered the Clairvius Narcisse story and brought it to the world).
In Bonello’s version of the story, we see the death, part-resurrection and enslavement of Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) before jumping forward to the present day where Narcisse’s granddaughter Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) has just enrolled in a strange kind of girls’ boarding school that exists only for the daughters of recipients of the Legion of Honour. Melissa befriends Fanny (Louise Labeque) who is lovesick for her estranged boyfriend Pedro (Sayyid Le Alami). Fanny invites Melissa to join her clique of fellow students and in the process of initiation, Melissa reveals the story of her grandfather and the prevalence of voodoo in her family. Fanny because obsessed with this idea especially as it relates to her relationship with Pedro. These three stories; the Narcisse Story, the Melissa story and the Fanny story play out for the remainder of the film but not in a way that coalesces into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Quite the opposite, in fact. And although each of these stories is quite fascinating in its own right, none of them ever feel (to me at least) like they are successfully resolved for the audience.
Nevertheless, the performances are uniformly strong, especially from the young women, and there’s a really clear style to each of the settings in which the stories are told. In particular, the style of the Clairvius Narcisse story is particularly effective in its sunbleached imagery and the shambling zombies cutting cane in the sugar fields have a visual and kinetic resonance with those original zombies in George Romero’s 1968 game changer Night of the Living Dead.
ZOMBI CHILD never really achieves a level of horror (and it’s not clear that this is its aim at all) but it does have a foreboding feel in the ritualistic school scenes, a frenzied hallucinogenic feel in the voodoo sequences with Fanny and a genuinely creepy almost doco feel in the ‘sixties’ footage of Narcisse and his fellow slave zombies. Perhaps it’s this; the strength of its style and performances that accentuate how much its storytelling falls short of its potential and makes this movie ultimately disappointing.