Hollywood loves a voodoo villain. In popular usage, the word "voodoo" connotes dark magic and the occult. It conjures spooky images of gaunt men in dark clothes and top hats, zombies, and dolls stuck through with pins. Since the early twentieth century, white culture has turned voodoo into a cultural shorthand for the mysterious, magical and evil.
The first representation of voodoo in film was in 'White Zombie' in 1932, the first feature-length zombie film in cinematic history. Directed by Victor Halperin, the movie stars Bela Lugosi as a white Haitian voodoo master named Murder Legendre (subtlety had not yet been invented) who uses his sinister knowledge of spells and potions to transform a young woman into a zombie.
With Lugosi, already world-famous for his performance as Dracula a few years before, the movie conflated one misunderstood, exotic Other (Lugosi) with another (the practice of voodoo), and the rest was history. Instant voodoo villain - just add water.
Sensationalised zombie imagery would continue to be associated with voodoo in film. But at least one depiction of zombiism seems to be rooted in truth. Wes Craven's 'The Serpent and the Rainbow' told the story of a scientist investigating the mysterious case of a Haitian man who was transformed into a zombie. The movie, loosely based on a non-fiction book of the same title, was inspired by the life of a man named Clairvius Narcisse. Narcisse claimed to have been poisoned, buried, and revived as a zombie, returning to his bewildered family 18 years later.
Bertrand Bonello's 'Zombi Child' opens in Haiti in 1962, where Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) mysteriously falls ill and dies. Or rather, he becomes a zombi, and is forced into slave labour on a sugar plantation. This isn't the brain-eating kind of zombie, however, but something rather more existentially bleak - a shell of the person's former self, only able to communicate in a sad little moan. According to voodoo folklore, if a zombi consumes meat or salt, they can regain some of their old self. Clairvius does so, but, unable to return to his wife right away, is forced to wander, alone and lost in melancholy isolation.
The second part of 'Zombi Child' takes place in the present, at a fancy French boarding school. Originally founded by Napoleon, the academy remains a place for the children and grandchildren of those who've won various orders of civilian and military merit to earn a top-tier education. Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), the only black student there, fled her native Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which killed her parents. Whether it's because she's black or not wealthy or both, the girl is isolated from her classmates. Melissa eventually makes one friend, Fanny (Louise Labeque), who brings the girl into her clique. "She's odd, but we like the same horror movies and books," Fanny tells her other friends.
Despite the title, 'Zombi Child' isn't really a horror movie. The first hour is glacially paced, with Melissa discussing her family history and Fanny spending most of her time pining for Pablo, a summer fling, via a series of ridiculously flowery letters. The suspense comes from trying to figure out how Clairvius' story will eventually intersect with Melissa and Fanny's. A third plot involving Melissa's Aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), a Mambo priestess, is introduced around two-thirds of the way through the movie and these plotlines eventually merge when a heartbroken Fanny commits an ill-considered act of cultural appropriation. Then the story takes a hard left turn into horror, complete with an appearance by spirit Baron Samedi (Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey), the most iconic loa of Haitian voodoo who pestered Roger Moore's 007 in 1973's 'Live and Let Die'.
Colonial history is a heavy presence throughout all of this, with Bonello seemingly intent on displaying how economic and social issues are mirrored across chronological and national boundaries.
While the film does suffer from an abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying ending, the jump in timelines and change in tone never becomes jarring. The scenes in the present are bright and colourful while Clairvius' storyline takes place in beautifully shot night settings illuminated by just enough natural light to expose the Haitian countryside.
In some ways, 'Zombi Child' bears a mild similarity to Peter Jackson's 'Heavenly Creatures', another film featuring lovelorn, privileged schoolgirls who trespass in the veil between worlds for trivial teenage reasons. Bonello inserts an interesting racial dynamic: Fanny and her friends fetishise Melissa's Mambo religion, while Melissa is depicted struggling with her identity and her unique family history, honouring her heritage by listening to the traditional music in secret. Colonial history is a heavy presence throughout all of this, with Bonello seemingly intent on displaying how economic and social issues are mirrored across chronological and national boundaries.
As filmmakers deepen their understanding of the cultural stereotypes that got us here and how we've internalised them, it seems they are removing the needle from voodoo dolls in exchange for portrayals with greater sensitivity. 'Zombi Child' is an absorbing, often perplexing story in which a religion with a healthy respect for death crosses paths with a lovesick French schoolgirl.