Bertrand Bonello’s follow-up to the wonderfully icy teen-terrorist drama Nocturama is a from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film. Zombi Child directly reckons with the racist, colonialist history of onscreen zombie lore, and pushes through that decades-old barrier to draw from the untapped potential of its roots in legitimate Vodou religious practices. It’s a deceptively well-balanced film that evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while somehow also delivering the genre goods teased in its title. The only film I can recall that attempts its same wryly funny but passionately political subversion of long-established horror tropes is the recent festival circuit curio I Am Not a Witch, and yet it’s clearly part of the same lineage as its genre’s pre-Romero beginnings in titles like I Walked With a Zombie. Gore hounds and horror essentialists are likely to be bored by the thoughtful, delicate deconstruction of the genre attempted here, but if you can get on-board with Bonello’s academic evisceration of zombie cinema tropes the movie feels almost outright revolutionary.
The narrative is split between two dominant timelines. In 1960s Haiti, a man is zombified by a Vodou ritual that drags his body out of the grave only to force him to work as a slave on a sugar cane plantation. In 2010s Paris, his teenage descendant is struggling to adapt to her new life at a bougie boarding school for (mostly white) French legacy kids, gradually losing touch with her Haitian heritage. The modernism of the contemporary timeline at first feels entirely disconnected from the eerie atmosphere of the historical Haitian setting. Teen girl bonding rituals and casual discussions of Rihanna’s discography don’t immediately feel as if they have anything to do with zombie plantation slaves an ocean & a half-century away. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the subjugative evils of the past cannot be severed from their echo in the present; it is impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship across class, cultural, and racial borders without acknowledging the colonialist abuses of our ancestors. At least half of Zombi Child is an observational coming-of-age drama that plainly presents modern teen girlhood at its most natural, but it still manages to establish a direct tether from that setting to a centuries-old Vodou tradition long before the connection becomes explicit at the film’s crescendo.
The most impressive aspect of Bonello’s touch here is how out in the open the film’s academic explorations can be, even though a significant portion of the screentime is focused on teens just hanging out, being kids. Classroom lectures at the boarding school about the unfulfilled promises of the French Revolution and the imperialist legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte (the school’s founder, no less) are allowed to simmer for minutes on end. The girls themselves are self-designated literature nerds, which means they get to discuss the evolution of the zombie movie in-dialogue and to recite poems with lines like “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring the dead.” The historical Haiti setting is much less vocal, as it mostly follows a zombified plantation slave’s sublingual path back to human consciousness. It’s no less overtly academic in its themes, though, pushing discussions of how cinema represents “black bodies” and slave labor to its most literal extreme. Sequences of zombie field workers despondently hacking at sugar cane with machetes—too pathetically drained of human life to even remain vertical without assistance—are just as horrifying as any brain-eating or disemboweling undead carnage you’re likely to see in a more straightforward genre exercise.
The zombie genre has become an over-saturated market in the last few decades, especially when it comes to grim post-Apocalyptic melodramas like The Walking Dead. At this point, the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom. The continued appeal of zombies as a genre device is understandable though, especially when you consider the flexibility of the metaphor. There’s nothing especially novel or compelling about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers uncover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: Indigenous peoples’ frayed relationships with white settlers in Blood Quantum, the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, etc. Zombi Child feels like a slightly different beast, though, and not only because it’s not a straight-up Horror film. Bonello’s contribution to the genre stands out because he dials the clock back even further than these equally political Romero riffs to directly engage with zombie lore at its original, real-world birthplace. It scorches the earth so it can start entirely anew, calling into question whether our cultural zombie obsession is itself a continuation of colonialist pilfering. More impressive yet, it does so while also taking time to declare “Diamonds” to be the best Rihanna song.