Zombi Child (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Blacksnake (1973)

EPSON MFP image

halfstar

I was quick to defend Russ Meyer’s first supposed foray into territory outside the “sex film”, The Seven Minutes, but I’m afraid the good vibes died a horrific death as soon as the director’s next picture. Hollywood success may have clouded Meyer’s already inflated hubris when he struck it big with his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, (mis)leading the director to believe he had the capability within him to command complexly nuanced, important films about issues like slavery & institutional racism. He was miserably mistaken. Black Snake cost Russ Meyer hundreds of thousands of dollars, a lot of it his own money now that he was back operating outside the studio system, and stands as his worst picture since at least the wildly misogynistic Motorpsycho!. Meyer should’ve known better than to tackle a period piece about slavery and, yet, Blacksnake somehow exists, adding nothing of value to the world but unwatchably dull stretches of wretched dialogue and as yet undiscovered, fresh ways to create corrosively racist art in the guise of enlightened progressivism.

Ever since the pointlessly racist rants in Vixen!, Meyer’s films had gradually escalated the respectability of their black characters. Starting with adding the first black actress to Meyer’s bevy of babes in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (a small step, that), the director went on to cast feature roles for black actors in both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & The Seven Minutes, a huge improvement on the lack of diversity in his back catalog. All of that goodwill goes out the window as soon as Blacksnake‘s opening credits, which features slaves on a plantation being beaten to the sound of playfully swanky music, racial slurs, and cracking whip sound effects (the film’s title itself refers to the shape of a whip) in an assault of unwelcome irreverence. It isn’t very often that I hate a film before its first proper scene, but Blacksnake is instantly recognizable as vile garbage.

It doesn’t get much better from there. Sexual relations between slaves & their owners are played as comical instead of rape. There’s a perverse amount of whippings & racial epitaphs to the point where it feels like they’re supposed to be a source of entertainment, which is pretty much a worst-case scenario. The worst part is that the slave revolt that concludes the film is excessive in its violence to the point that it plays as if you’re supposed to feel bad for the slave-owners being hung & whipped to death (for a change). While making the film, Meyer was quoted as saying, “Sex is out, violence is in. This film will have every conceivable death you can think of – death by hanging, by double-barreled shotgun, by whipping, by machete, by crucifixion and by shark.” The problem is that the violence in the film plays as nihilistic at best, and deeply, subliminally racist at worst.

With Blacksnake, Meyer had tried to make a Big Issue film & failed miserably. Even his wild rants about the wicked nature of women & heterosexual romance in past works were more nuanced & insightful than his supposedly anti-racist sentiments in Blacksnake. If anything good at all came out of this dumpster fire, it’s that the film’s failure & resulting financial ruin drove Meyer back into the open arms & comforting bosoms of the nudie pic. Meyer may have been done with the sex film, but the sex film was far from done with him, He had no other available recourse but to return to sexploitation in his next picture, Supervixens, having fallen from grace in his two sole self-serious dramas.

-Brandon Ledet