Zombi Child: Find a New Place to Haunt, by Scott Nye
In probably the most overt instance of Bertrand Bonello shoving all his most interesting stuff to as late in the film as possible, it isn’t until the literal closing credits that we find out the film is based in part on a true story. If only it were the only one. Here is a film about voodoo, about people returning from the dead, about eating flesh, and much of the film just rather tediously (though not, to mine eyes, terribly exploitively) lingers on the day-to-day interactions in a girls’ boarding school.
Not just any boarding school, mind – this one was founded by Napoleon to teach the children of Legion of Honour recipients, the highest merit the French military bestows. Here we meet Fanny (Louise Labeque), the requisite “weird girl” in her unofficial sorority, who has recently befriended another “weird girl,” Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who moved from Haiti following the earthquake of 2010, but who is best known to the other members of the group as someone who dances alone and without music. For some reason they think this is odd, even though it sounds pretty awesome. The film spends a good deal of time with the girls in class, where we learn such important lessons as France has a colonial history that lingers over them, and may yet one day return for them. And that pretty much maps out the trajectory of the movie, which is somehow more essayistic than Bonello’s similarly-insipid Nocturama, yet emerges with less fire in its belly.
Somewhere between Melissa reciting a poem about zombies and telling them her aunt is a voodoo priestess, and her staring Fanny dead in the eyes and declaring “I’m gonna eat you,” you can kind of figure out what’s up with that title. The flashbacks to the “true story” (a man really did claim to be a zombie, but from there, as you might imagine, interpretations vary) keep the audience at arms length, sort of hinting at the zombie-ness of it all without quite going for it; the spareness doesn’t go so far as to resist obvious extrapolation, but also doesn’t really build on what we can glean from it.
The film is more interested in the possible repercussions of this story, were it to be true, on European life, which is a very European thing to think about. Unfortunately, the marriage of horror movie tropes and an exploration of the refugee crisis is not, Atlantics aside, necessarily a surefire success, and Bonello doesn’t find much to concern himself with beyond it other than to note that, yeah, white people are going to try to take advantage of everything they’re presented with. This culminates in the film’s sole really good scene, which is admittedly really good, a full-on horror-show explosion of voodoo practices full of black eyes and strange body contortions and people speaking with unusual voices, and certainly horror nuts who flock to every half-baked homage to The Exorcist are well-advised to seek this one out on its late strengths alone, but Bonello’s decision to shove all this off to such a late stage felt like an unsuccessful gambit to situate us in the everyday and then turn that on its head. Voodoo stuff is always going to be crazy no matter when you deploy it, and if that is the aim, there has to be more to invest us in the everyday milieu. Fanny and her friends are simply dull, far more dull than most teenagers. As with Melissa, they are signifiers of a certain life experience, and the film is not intellectually stimulating enough to keep them there and call it a day.