Zombi Child first look review Cannes Film Festival 2019

Bertrand Bonello uses genre to explore the legacy of colonialism in moving teen drama Zombi Child

Horror fans may already be familiar with the story of Clairvius Narcisse through Wes Craven’s 1998 film The Serpent And The Rainbow. It starred Bill Pullman as a man who heads to Haiti to investigate voodoo and zombies. The film was based on Wade Davis’ research of a documented case of zombification and the process which saw Narcisse apparently rise from the dead. Craven’s film was mostly concerned with the toxic powder that caused amnesia and kept the person subdued.

Director Bertrand Bonello takes a different tack, approaching the zombie genre as a provocative exploration of colonisation and the irreversible impact enslavement has had on future generations. He imagines Narcisse’s granddaughter as teenager, Melissa, displaced by the 2010 earthquake and attending an all-girls boarding school in France. She is befriended by Fanny who is mourning the loss of her first love, and her group of friends who initiate Melissa into their clique.

There’s shades of Peter Weir’s woozy Picnic At Hanging Rock as the teenagers laze around the school grounds, and their spry interactions recall the girl gangs of The Virgin Suicides and The Craft as they chat about boys and perform rituals by candlelight. The film switches between time periods and location taking the viewer to sugar plantations in Haiti where Narcisse is suspended between life and death, and in doing so recalls Jacques Torneur’s I Walked With A Zombie. A powerful epigraph taken from a poem written by Rene Depestre titled ‘Cap’tain Zombi’ sets an eerie ambience from the outset, with the girls’ convincingly constructed friendship allowing for genuinely uplifting and deliciously spooky moments.

Bonello’s deep love for genre, his detailed research into the Haitian culture and his handle on the deft art of making you care for his characters results in a poetic and incredibly moving film. From the fact that Melissa is anxious about whether her friends will accept her for who she truly is, as she wanders the halls of a high-school packed full of white faces, to the nuanced investigation of cultural appropriation there’s lots to unpack in the multi-layered script.

Zombi Child was seen and reviewed at Cannes Film Festival 2019/