'Zombi Child' Review: A Chilling And Wholly Unique Take On The Walking Dead [NYFF 2019]

A pufferfish is sliced. Poison is stashed into a shoe. An unwitting victim (Mackenson Bijou) puts on that shoe and walks the street of 1962 Haiti. Then he falls dead. He is buried. The corpse appears to hear the beat of dirt shoving on his casket. Inexplicably, the scene cuts to the walking corpse being dragged to a sugarcane farm. Now a "zombi," he is forced into slavery with others like him. As automation with head bowed, the zombi slaves have no will to break from orders. Until one day, when the zombi breaks from slave labor and watches his civilization from the distance. This tale is lifted from the strange case of Clairvius Narcisse, a real-life documented "zombi", a man who was buried alive before he returned to his society. (His tale also inspired Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow). "Zombi" is the Haitian-French original spelling of the widely-known "Zombie." And the "Zombi" of Zombi Child isn't your conventional Hollywood walking dead. While Clairvius moans, elicit glassy stares, and gaits with bodily convulsions, Clairvius's zombi form bears flesh that looks healthy on the outside rather than visibly torn. But his pain is inward, a starving for release from an ache he cannot articulate even when he finds the will to depart from the grueling labor.55 years later in present-day France, a white teenager, Fanny (Louise Labèque), at a private school pens letters to her unseen boyfriend. As she pours over her perpetual pining for her lover, she recruits one of the few black classmates, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), into her sorority. As her sorority welcomes their new initiate, they learn that Melissa is an orphaned survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and raised by her aunt (Tatiana Wilfort). The sorority finds something off about Melissa, though she is simply engaging in her own cultural intimacy. Melissa has a routine of drenching herself in her own world in private, dancing to herself or uttering sounds that intrigue her new friends. Director Bertrand Bonello toys with the common concepts of the zombie—or "zombi"—by juggling genres: high school, horror, and walking dead. In a jump scare cut, we see Mélissa's school generally regards zombies in their traditional pop culture monstrous husk, watching them from horror trailers on their phones. To them, zombies are sulking shells of siphoned souls wandering the Earth and feeding on the living. But as the film divulges Mélissa's status as Clairvius' descendant, it reveals that Mélissa holds dear a different idea of the zombi form. The film leaves the audience to dwell on the teased connection between the past and present lives. Zombi Child links the French colonization of Haiti to Clairvius's unfortunate condition. For Clairvius, the history of colonization haunts his slavery status, which transforms him into a somber family tale for Mélissa. But for the modern France, it thrives on the history of colonization. Note that the private school celebrates Napoleon, the man who colonized Haiti, as a hero of "reason." But this colonization manifests unpleasantly in Mélissa's transition to a new environment. Though she seems happy to be part of a new group, she does show apprehension with her adjustment into French society, a sorrow that seems downplayed for self-preservation. "Think of the [school] uniform as equality," her well-meaning aunt (Katiana Milfort) tells her through the phone.Bonello's heightens a white girl's desire to satirical lengths. Fanny pines for her lover, Pablo, whom we never see onscreen other than in fantasy sequences, where he's a smoldering shirtless man of color, suggesting fetishization driving her infatuation. Her pining leads to a desperate measure that she can't admit is blasphemous: her reaching into the black culture for solutions. When Mélissa's aunt, a mambo, points out that this heartbreak can heal, Fanny insists that her suffering must not be ranked and partakes in a spirituality she should have no part in.Whether or not you catch on to the meaning of its warped and spellbinding climax, Zombi Child meritoriously wields slow-burn for an electrifying payoff. Zombi Child marches to an innocuous and bone-chilling beat before unfurling its tapestry of the sacred, absurd, and tragic. But counterbalancing its nuttiness is an ending that represents recovery, the finalization of humanity restored. /Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10