Late in Bertrand Bonello’s newest film, Zombi Child, a student at an elite girls school remarks that zombies used to move slowly, but the contemporary undead run as if it’s no big deal. Her friend replies that everyone is in a hurry now, even zombies. Bonello seems to be fascinated by zombies, but not the Walking Dead (or running dead) variety; his film concerns itself with one of the more infamous examples of possible zombification.
In 1962, Clairvius Narcisse (played her by Mackenson Bijou) collapsed in his native Haiti and was buried shortly thereafter. But the same man announced himself to his family 18 years later, alive and well. He claimed to have been poisoned (possibly with a pufferfish-derived toxin) that produced a coma-like state, before being dug up the night of his burial by plantation hands and was forced to work there. He and the other zombies were supposedly fed a steady stream of a hallucinogen that affected their memory and made them compliant — in effect, slaves. Clairvius blamed his brother for zombifying him in order to get his hands on an inheritance, but medical professionals came to doubt the explanations of toxins and hallucinogens in subsequent decades. Narcisse died (for good) in 1994.
Zombi Child alternates between a fictionalized version of Narcisse’s ordeal and the present day at an all-girls boarding school that only caters to the children of recipients of the Légion d’honneur or similar honors. The granddaughter of Narcisse, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) is now a student, but the film is narrated by a white student, Fanny (Louise Labeque), the only girl who takes an active interest in befriending her.
Compared to the chilly yet fast-paced Nocturama, Bonello delights in returning to a more leisurely paced film. At first, it’s not quite clear what his intentions are; we see the veiled racism of the predominantly white students as they ignore Mélissa, chalking it up to claims that she’s “weird,” and one of their history classes features a professor lecturing on France’s revolutionary history, as well as its failure to live up to its own goals. But as we see more of the Haitian timeline, Bonello begins to connect the dots between present-day France and its former slave colony. The plantation structure that Narcisse had been enslaved to support is one of the vestiges of French colonial rule. Centuries after Haiti became an independent country, the consequences of French rule still harm its inhabitants.
Much of the acting in Zombi Child has a dream-like quality, and Louimat in particular seems to operate in a perpetual fog. But the final portion of the film is invigorated by its zombie subject, and it briefly turns into a horror film of sorts, which gives Louimat and Labeque a chance to flex their muscles. Yet Bijou is given short shrift, and Bonello’s chilly demeanor does him and the film few favors when it comes to Narcisse’s story. There are few things as horrible to imagine as being buried alive, or to be turned into a drugged-up slave, but we get few glimpses into Narcisse’s mind. I wanted to understand the pain and anguish he must have felt, but by withholding those crucial elements, Zombi Child and Bonello dares us not to care. It’s easier than he realizes.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15