Movie Review: “Zombi Child” takes the Living/Walking Dead back to their voodoo roots

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I can’t be the only one who is over zombies. Totally.

Over-exposed, slow-walking or sprinting, George A. Romero “Living Dead” or TV “Walking Dead,” just enough already.

But if you see one zombie movie this year, here’s the one to catch — “Zombi Child.” It rips this Haitian curse out of Hollywood cultural appropriators and puts it back in Haiti, back in the realm of voodoo, where it belongs.

Writer-director Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) conjures up a tale with Haitian history, European exploitation, ethnography, race, and voodoo. He weaves three storylines through two settings — Haiti and an exclusive French girls’ boarding school.

And while there are horrors — reserved for late in the third act — it’s everything that comes before that makes “Zombi Child” fascinating.

In 1962 Haiti, we see only a man’s hands as he guts a spiny blowfish, grinds up its entrails with herbs and dusts a powder into a pair of penny loafers.

We see a  young man (Mackenson Bijou) wearing those loafers walk, stagger, collapse and “die.” And then damned if he isn’t dug up and hauled off as slave labor, cutting cane on a sugar plantation.

In the present day, Fanny (Louise Labeque) is a member of the French ruling class ensconced in an exclusive boarding school founded by Napoleon himself. All the girls wears red sashes and have this odd hands-crossed way of reverse bowing in respect to their teachers, et al. Napoleonic?

Fanny writes long, poetically purple and passionate letters to her amour, Pablo, a long-haired motorcycling teen she’s obsessed with. Among her classmates, she is most taken with the new girl, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat). She is black, from Haiti, and she’s in this school because her mother won the Legion d’Honneur for service for France, Haiti and humanity.

Fanny likes that Mélissa dances “like Rihanna.”

Walmart Rihanna,” one of the mean girls in her sorority snipes (in French, with English subtitles). Even in France, Walmart is a put-down.

But this club is “a literary sorority.” So “Who cares how she dances? Is she cool enough to hang with us?”

Can she pass the initiation? That involves sneaking off with the others, lighting a lot of candles, and reciting a piece of literature, from memory, that says a lot about her.

Mélissa isn’t all that “cool,” but she’s the very essence of “black girl magic.” She tears off a poem, “Captain Zombi” (a real poem) full of fire and fury for the “white world,” reminding it of African contributions to life, work and ethnicity. “Black blood runs through your veins!” Weird she may be (“Hear my zombi ROAR!”), the schoolgirls are suitably impressed.

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Bonello shows us the rites and rituals of this exclusive school, including ones the “sorority” girls make up for their group, intercut with the funeral rituals of Haiti, and the commune-with-the-dead incantations of Mélissa’s aunt (Katiana Milfort), her lone surviving relative who tutors and does odd jobs to keep them afloat in France, and practices voodoo as a“mambo.”

And we follow the further adventures of the living dead man enslaved on a sugar plantation way back when.

It’s an utterly immersive Franco-Haitian gumbo, complete with flashbacks, “magic” as practiced by those who know “the old ways,” teen hormones and the zombi origin story.

That’s the point of entree for a horror fan — seeing where Haitian myth, magic and ritual were appropriated and twisted into the dead who feast on the living — lurching and rotting their way through half a century of movies and TV shows inspired by “Night of the Living Dead.”

It’s not the scariest zombi or “zombie” movie ever. But are any of them scary any more? Bonello uses the subject as his jumping off point for exploring what all this undead stuff is really about and how the “white world” has been messing around with it for cheap frights and corpse make-up entertainment.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, brief nudity, profanity

Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou

Credits: Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:43

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