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MOVIES: Zombi Child (LFF 2019) - Review

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Zombi Child is perhaps the one film that I’ve seen since Twin Peaks: The Return that has been most influenced by what is arguably David Lynch’s magnum opus, with the horror film breathing weirdness and eccentricity, opting for a slow pace with plenty of ambiguity that culminates in a frantic final act that has echoes of last year’s Suspiria from director Luca Guadagnino - appropriately distributed in the UK by Mubi, who were were also involved in Suspiria's release. The film taps into Voodoo culture and addresses important issues that still linger with colonialism to offer a unique take on the zombie genre that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Bertrand Bonello is responsible for one of the best films of the decade - the criminally underrated Nocturama, so the anticipation for Zombi Child was at an all-time high going it more than delivered, taking the audiences inside an elite French all-girls boarding school where they are tutored by the best to become the best. There is no room for error and no failure allowed, and outside of classes there is little time for anything but studying; the girls combating that by dividing into secret sororities under the pretence of studying that meet in the dead of night and sing along to music that they have in common, share secrets and bond as a group, who are living, eating and sleeping together.

The two girls that we spend the most time with from the young cast come from radically different backgrounds, and how their culture separates them is one of the main issues that the film has to deal with. Wislanda Louimat’s Mélissa is a girl who has lost both her parents in a recent Earthquake, adapting to life in France as an orphan; whilst Louise Labeque plays spoilt rich girl Fanny who spends life at school pining for her long-distance boyfriend Pablo, fantasising about him in her dreams. When Mélissa joins their sorority and confides in them about the traditions of her culture, the kids look down on it and for the most part treat voodoo magic with scepticism, although there are some converts who view it as an opportunity, the main body of the sorority looks down on it. The retort is simple however for Mélissa - spending a life as a Zombi - the film’s equivalent of zombies, beings trapped between life and death with no escape - is not horrible to them. It’s just the way it is, and the way it has been. For her it is normal.

Zombis are brainless, memory-lost creatures who only remember who they are when they eat meat. Brought back from the dead to work on the plantation fields - once they remember who they are - they attack their slavers and go back to their own graves to bury themselves. It’s part of a grim tradition, and the film frames it as though it’s something that is true, offering a credits scene not unlike most biographical films that catch up with people’s lives after the event of the film ends, hinting that zombis really exist. The appropriate track that plays over the end credits is “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which fits in with the theme of zombie films using familiar music in eerie new ways – following on from Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off in Little Monsters.

The pacing is relatively slow, but that is a minimal drawback, the film has plenty of stunning visuals thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Yves Cape - capturing brilliantly the sweeping Haitian jungles or the closed off private interiors of the elite French boarding school, with the locations provide a fascinating backdrop to watch these events play out before our eyes. It’s safe to say that Zombi Child looks stunning, crafting its own, unique vision. After watching Little Monsters the day before I speculated that it was hard to do something new with the zombie genre but I was very happy to be proven wrong, with Bonello’s take being different enough to recommend.

Praise too must be given to Mackenson Bijou who plays Mélissa’s with Clairvius Narcisse with conviction, and we spend a significant part of the storyline following his character told in flashbacks to Haiti. It helps build up the mythology of the enduring zombi story, and helps explain more about who in turn, Mélissa is. Much of the story is both told and shown at the same time which can drag the pacing down which is where the main weakness of Zombi Child lies, and it feels like the first two acts of the film’s three acts compromises of the introduction, with it ending just when the story gets truly interesting. But the payoff for that finale is more than worth the patience required to sit through what comes before, as despite the film goes out on a memorable high that establishes the drama as one of the most creative films from the festival to date.

Look out for Zombi Child at the London Film Festival and watch its trailer here.

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