Combustible Celluloid
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With: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Adilé David, Ninon François, Mathilde Riu, Ginite Popote, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey, Sayyid El Alami
Written by: Bertrand Bonello
Directed by: Bertrand Bonello
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, Haitian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 01/24/2020

Zombi Child (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Haiti U Give

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Frenchman Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama), Zombi Child is not the zombie movie you're expecting. It's a wafting, interior movie, more I Walked with a Zombie than Night of the Living Dead, more whisper than scream. The story begins in Haiti in 1962. An unseen man cuts up a pufferfish, grinds up the poisonous parts, and places the powder in a pair of shoes. Later, a man walking down the street collapses. There are more disconnected images of men, actually slaves, working listlessly in fields, and the poisoned man stealing a piece of chicken.

In the present day, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) is the new girl at a highly prestigious boarding school. The wistful, lovely Fanny (Louise Labeque) befriends her, and gets her initiated into her little clique. Fanny is in love with a boy named Pablo, seen in flashbacks, or visions, shirtless and grinning under a pile of long, curly hair. She narrates breathless letters to him, but at some point, he dumps her and destroys her teenage soul. The group of girls learns more about Melissa's history with voodoo; the aunt she lives with is even a kind of voodoo priestess. Everything comes together on the night of a certain ceremony.

Bonello cuts back and forth between the Haiti sequences and the girls' school, creating something more like soft, poetic impressions than narrative, but it all comes together when Melissa stages her own little secret ceremony, to join in spiritually with her family. Of course, Bonello is discussing his views on slavery and freedom, but at least he's doing it in an indirect way, although his style could be seen as too arty and precious. I found that Zombi Child has an entrancing mood that builds a sense of dread, although perhaps that's due to the chilling synthesizer score, also by director Bonello. Hollywood zombie fans will enjoy two sequences, a dream, and one in which the characters (correctly) speak of the difference between fast and slow zombies.

Film Movement released the film on DVD, in a fine transfer that emphasizes the film's softness. It includes a rather low-energy commentary track by Bonello, trailers for the feature and several other Film Movement titles, and an unsettling 15-minute short film, Child of the Sky, which, like the feature, could almost be considered a horror film.

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