2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: It’s almost a sure thing that no movie has ever tackled the undead like “Zombi Child” opts to. Nothing about this hybrid coming of age tale resembles anything you’ve seen before in the zombie genre. Frankly, it would be a mistake to label it a “zombie movie” anyhow. This isn’t a horror film, or anything close to it. Instead, playing at NYFF, we have a complex drama that utilizes the reanimation of a corpse as just one tool in its cinematic toolbox.
“Zombi Child” consistently manages to surprise. It does so not with any shocks, though there’s the occasional surprise, but with a consistently evolving story that sucks you thoroughly in. There are hints at the creature George A. Romero popularized, but this is far more a voodoo tale, supernaturally speaking. That’s where the movie opts to get even weirder, much to its benefit.
Two parallel stories are told here. One is set in Haiti in 1962. Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) dies suddenly and, after his burial, is dug up and reanimated by shady fellows. Along with other reanimated corpses, Clairvius is made to work in the sugarcane fields. However, when he eats some meat, his humanity begins to slightly resurface. He soon escapes and roams the countryside, slowly coming to terms with who and what he is.
The other part takes place in present day France, where Fanny (Louise Labeque) has befriended new girl Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), inviting her to join a literary sorority. Mélissa is a bit weird, but Fanny likes it. The other girls believe something is off about her though, which only increases as they learn more about her.
Eventually, it becomes clear how the two stories are intertwined, though how that ultimately impacts the climax is best left as a surprise. However, it’s at that point things become both the weirdest and the most fun here. The hard right turn that occurs is an utter delight, even if it’s arguably the darkest element.
The acting is strong in “Zombi Child.” The three central performances come from Mackenson Bijou, Louise Labeque, and Wislanda Louimat, each of whom have limited screen credits, but who turn in vivid work. Bijou especially does something very different, furthering how this is not the zombie you’ve been introduced to on screen before. The emotional heft comes from him. Labeque and Louimat are believable teenagers, dealing with life and love while at school. Both make claims to being the main protagonist, though ultimately the movie separates them while still proclaiming who the whole flick has really been about.
Filmmaker Bertrand Bonello deftly threads his two stories here, only faltering when it comes to the pacing of Clairvius’ wanderings. The 103 minute movie could easily run closer to 90 minutes with some tightening up there. The time spent at school with the girls yields more consistent benefits and would be better served with even more focus. Fanny and Mélissa bring more variety to the table, including some low-key humor at times. Bonello does invest you in both sides though, so when it all comes together, you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what happens next.
If you’re hoping for “Zombi Child” to be a traditional zombie tale, you’re going to be disappointed. The New York Film Festival has instead chosen to showcase a movie that defies easy labels. It’s compelling, entertaining, and ends on terrific sequence after terrific sequence. The one thing it’s not? A film about a zombie.