You’ll know pretty early into the film if Zombi Child is for you. After an arrestingly strange opening set in 1962 Haiti, in which a man is poisoned, assumed dead, buried, and then dug up again to be revived and put to work at a sugar plantation, Bertand Bonello’s new film stops dead in its tracks to unsubtly lay out its entire ideological stall. It does so in a wildly overlong monologue given to a class full of bored students in an elite Parisian school by a French history teacher, performed so mundanely that I was almost asleep inside the first 10 minutes.
Though this is, admittedly, Zombi Child’s dullest scene, its inability to make its two storylines (one in Haiti as the zombified man regains his humanity, the other in modern France as a group of schoolgirls get drawn into the world of voodoo) connect satisfyingly means its pacing is appallingly leaden throughout. As soon as one plot strand starts making meaningful progress, Bonello pivots to the parallel one, setting the excitement and investment meter back to zero. Even the finale – genuinely disturbing and taking its conversations about the damage done by cultural appropriation to original, unsettling places – isn’t allowed to just play out, Bonello insisting on two boring interruptions.
It’s a massive shame, as Zombi Child is technically excellent. Bonello wrote his own score, and it’s fantastic, setting an unnerving tone with impressive efficiency, whilst his crisp yet off-kilter visuals provide plentiful style. The prestigious school inhabited by the lead girls, as well as its odd-yet-chic uniform, suggests enough of the surreal to make all the spiritual stuff plausible without outright placing it in a fantastical setting. There is a misstep towards the end though, Bonello playing Liverpool anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ over the final shot, which is hilariously incongruous.
If Zombi Child was just slow paced but had a compelling story, or was as messily weird as it currently is but was more fun to watch, it has the potential to be a great film. Yet, with both of these flaws, they add up to something fatal, rendering the end product a frustrating chore, no matter how stylish or politically relevant it is. Indulgent to the extreme, it feels far, far longer than it is, providing a confusing story without any immediately identifiable stakes.