If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.
The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.
Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.
The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.