French director Bertrand Bonello follows up his intoxicating 2017 teen terrorism drama Nocturama with the frustratingly leaden Zombi Child — a haphazard collection of good ideas and intentions that nonetheless fail to come together in any particularly satisfying way. Functioning as a horror movie about the terrifying, dehumanising natures of colonialism and slavery, Zombi Child consists of two interweaving storylines: one set in 1960s Haiti, following the supposedly dead Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) who is forced into a zombified state and enslaved; and the other following students of a prestigious Parisian girls school, as they became fascinated with the Haitian culture and voodoo rituals of their new classmate, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat).
Bonello’s greatest mistake in telling this story is the inflated sense of narrative tension that he bestows upon it — while the back and forth between the two storylines is no doubt intended to create mystery and intrigue, its actual effect is one of bewilderment and confusion. The clumsy crosscutting totally disrupts any sense of pacing and allows neither storyline the time or development necessary to make it engaging. The end result is a clunky allegory that reveals the perils of writing for themes and social commentary before all else; Zombi Child provides plenty of thematic detail on colonialism and cultural appropriation (an early scene practically lectures the viewer on all of the political milieus that Bonello will spend the next 90 minutes exploring) but it does so at the expense of having engaging characters or an interesting narrative.
Take the Haiti-based scenes for example: Clairvius’s dehumanization and zombification fail to prove particularly interesting because Bonello gives us no sense of the human behind the zombie. The character and his situation are taken entirely at face value, with no development beyond the bare minimum that is necessary for them to play into Bonello’s wider commentary. He directs his actors to deliver stilted, flat performances — no doubt intended to mirror the zombified state he’s examining, but it represents another instance of watchability being sacrificed for strict adherence to a theme.
And despite the excessive focus on this theme, Bonello’s commentary is still far from perfect — the modern-day scenes hold a more pointed critique of cultural appropriation, as one of Mélissa’s white classmates tries to repurpose the voodoo she has been introduced to for her own gain. The issue here is that the existence of the film itself essentially represents this very scenario: while Bonello tries to portray voodoo as something of cultural importance and connection for the Haitians, as a white French director, it’s not really his place to do so — and that becomes more apparent as the film stoops to indulge in sensationalism and exoticism in its final act.
Bonello’s ambitions are certainly admirable, and his craft is as audacious and confident as ever, but save the movie it cannot. That confidence feels oddly misplaced here, with his formal control at odds with the messy, unresolved narrative strands that he’s trying (and failing) to bring together. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Zombi Child is that this isn’t the sprawling, spectacular disaster you’d maybe expect from a usually-great director — in that scenario, at least, there’d be something worth caring about. Instead, he delivers a half-baked experiment that doesn’t end up going anywhere, aimlessly rendered in the most emotionless and dull manner possible.