Books Reviews

Heidi vs Zombies (2020) – By Jean-Paul Cardinaux, Xavier Ruiz & JP Kalonji

Many people might have turned away from a project trapped in development hell, following the withdrawal of a major financial backer. The minds behind Heidi vs Zombies had other ideas, however. After a producer pulled the plug on a slated film in 2012, creators Jean-Paul Cardinaux and Xavier Ruiz spent the last four years working with artist JP Kalonji to resurrect their idea, adapting the script of Heidi vs Zombies into a thrilling graphic novel. Largely, that was time very well spent.

The resulting work is a thrilling 90-page romp, which has plenty of meat (and gristle) for horror fans to get their teeth into, while also offering an intriguing new take on one of Switzerland’s historic literary characters. Originally conceived of by Johanna Spyri in 1880, Heidi focused on an orphaned girl initially raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt Dete, before the death of her grandmother and Dete being offered a good job in the big city mean the 5-year-old Heidi is shipped off to her paternal grandfather’s house in the mountains.

Cardinaux and Ruiz decided to remix this story for modern audiences by confronting “an innocent young girl with bloodthirsty creatures”, and “surprise audiences by proposing an emancipated Heidi, who doesn’t keep her tongue in her pocket, and is no longer afraid to face her destiny.” Alongside her friend Peter and her cantankerous Grandpa, that is a thoroughly enjoyable journey to embark upon.

This is not a cheap Pride and Prejudice vs Zombies, however – it is a story told with heart, which takes care not to inject increasing bouts of absurdity for kitsch comic effect. This work does not concern itself with lauding readers pop-culture knowledge, and which details ‘go together’ (tee-hee, the members of the British aristocracy shouldn’t know ju-jitsu). The dry humour here instead centres on poking fun at the real-life assumptions of its largely-Swiss audience, and that alone is something which deserves commendation.

Thanks to this balanced approach – a potent blend of wry-wit and sudden bouts of gory horror – Heidi vs Zombies absolutely fulfils its first criteria. As confirmed by Cardinaux when interviewed by Indy Film Library earlier this month, the story now “exists,” meaning someone else won’t beat its creators to the punch, while they also have “additional support to convince producers” in the quest to see it realised as an animated film.

This book is undeniably an excellent proof-of-concept, and will work as a readymade storyboard whenever new backers can be found. Believe me, if I had the money, I’d be throwing it at this production already. Beyond that, though, the results are a little more mixed.

Script, to page, to screen

One of the enjoyable things about genre storytelling is that the conventional beats they centre on provide a kind of universal language of the initiated. If a creator provides a sufficient nod to these norms without leaning too heavily on them, they can tap into the warmth of a fan’s nostalgia, while giving them some interesting food for thought they will carry with them long after the story to a close.

Train to Busan is perhaps my favourite example of this. It is a zombie film which is well-versed in the language of its predecessors, while being confident enough in that knowledge to critique the wider genre, or use certain strains of it to engage with discourses we encounter in everyday life. It does this so well that I was able to first see it in a screening at the Rotterdam International Film Festival without English subtitles, and still discern various plot strands without speaking a word of either Dutch or Korean, while also being left to ruminate on the othering of refugees or people in need which several of the film’s sequences so impactfully addressed.

Similarly, while Cardinaux and Ruiz’ abbreviated story has had much of its lengthier exposition and context stripped away, it still manages to use zombie folklore to tap into certain culture discussions bubbling on under the surface of Swiss society. There are neat references to Switzerland’s attitudes toward the outside world, refugees, the nation’s history of ‘neutrality,’ gender norms, and a number of other clichés-treated-as-truisms which are interwoven skilfully with the immediate narrative regarding the undead pandemic.

Beyond the minimalist dialogue, which still manages to pop in spite of its sparsity, JP Kalonji’s art has been key to maintain a working story through this process. He has undeniably done an impeccable job of helping Cardinaux and Ruiz realise their vision. Reminiscent of the work of Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett, the images in every page are bursting with life and energy, oozing a cartoonish joy which makes things all the more unnerving when imagery bathed in a fearful crimson-hue leaks into it.

It is a refreshing step-change from many other graphic novels striving to horrify their audience – which typically depend more heavily on realism than stylism to get that job done. It is important that genre guardians appreciate that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and while The Walking Dead might have been right to change tack after its first volume and favour the grittier style of Charlie Adlard to Tony Moore, the seemingly light-hearted style of Kalonji is a perfect fit for Cardinaux and Ruiz’ pulpy narrative, lull readers into a false sense of security that will make the sudden bursts of viscera onto the page all the more shocking.

The characterisation – which Kalonji produced from reference photography sent to him by the writers – is particularly worthy of praise. In a story of so few words, helping readers to not only distinguish between characters, but understand something of their essence beyond basic narrative archetypes falls squarely on the shoulders of the artist. Heidi, for example, initially adopts defensive or withdrawn stances – closed off in her bedroom while gaming, or hugging her knees and hiding behind a huge pair of headphones when forced onto public transport – but gradually comes out of her shell in her new environment. It is enjoyable to notice the difference between the guarded individual, wary of being abandoned once more by her uncaring guardians, and the young woman who finds her feet amid the apocalypse.

Similarly, Heidi’s aunt Dete’s thematic facelift is largely realised via Kalonji’s work. The script showcases her spite and cynicism, but her vanity and lack of self-awareness are smashed home by the art. Her sloping post-rhinoplasty nose and her sun-damaged, wrinkled forehead suggest she is obsessed with her own image, and its ability to attract someone of wealth and status. As she swigs from a wine-bottle and sways with every shambling step – berating the surrounding undead for their customer service while sweet-talking her on-off boyfriend over the phone – we know exactly who she is, and what motivates her actions.

Light on details

Unfortunately, there are still some details that do not translate without more overt exposition. Grandpa, for example, is a gruff man of few words, whose blunt approach often comes across as heartless – and he does not get much of an arc to either explain why he behaves this way (the absence of a Grandma – and Grandpa’s fear of getting close to someone else he might lose – would usually has something to do with his temperament in such a story), or to illustrate a change of heart which leads to his character’s decision to lay down his life for his granddaughter.

I can only hope that the translation of this work back into a feature-length form will allow for the filling in of these gaps. Certainly, in his interview, Cardinaux suggested this will be the case. For example, in the film, Peter’s Grandmother, who will be a new addition to the film, sounds like a more three-dimensional presence in the planned film than many of those actually in the book – including Peter’s Mother, who seems to only really serve as a means to hastily push out exposition relating to our protagonist with the suggestion Heidi “looks just like her mother.”

According to Cardinaux, “Peter’s Grandmother is blind,” which presents an opportunity to inject a different component into the mix in terms of how someone without such an important sense would survive during the end times, as well as to pay homage to Day of the Triffids (which thanks to 28 Days Later has its own special role in zombie fiction). Apparently, to those ends, added material will see the character “eliminates a zombie despite her handicap” – something which “did not fit in the comic book story, but will be totally legendary in the film!” Colour me interested.

There are a number of other fronts on which the plot needs fleshing out – as it stands the story is all payoff and no set-up. For example, an old man who knows Peter warns him that “They are back!” before being consumed by the horde. This needs to be teed up earlier on: the man’s relationship to Peter, even if it is minimal, needs explaining, as does how he knows what “they” are. Similarly, the appearance of a Priest (who has some serious Nic Cave vibes) is rushed through. He leads our protagonist to safety in a Church before immediately revealing he has some kind of tense relationship with Grandpa, confessing that the door is not locked, showing that he is trained in combat when the undead flood in, and is overwhelmed by the horde in a matter of a few panels.

It is so quickly pushed through that I was left wondering whether the sequence was actually worth doing. There are shades of the second chunk of World War Z about this – the scene’s inclusion might suggest to movie producers that there is the potential for a really interesting couple of scenes in a film – but when evaluating this as part of a wider story, it is an inconsequential series of events that could have been jettisoned to allow more breathing-room for important aspects of the plot. Just as happened with World War Z, precious time that could have been spent on its rather hasty climactic sequence is instead frittered away on a piece of B-plot.

Living up to the potential

As has been outlined already, the primary purpose of this book is to serve as a proof of concept – and in that capacity, Heidi vs Zombies nails it. When taken as a standalone work, however, it is on shakier ground.

There is just about enough food for thought to make this a decent read; its deft use of social satire and unique Swiss reference points mean this is a story you have not seen before – even if it does still rely on some very well-trodden narrative paths to reach its destination. Beyond that, though, readers who are hoping for the narrative intricacies of Kirkman’s sprawling juggernaut The Walking Dead or the formal innovation of Brian Ralph’s claustrophobic first-person comic Daybreak may be sadly disappointed by a barebones story that is frankly a little pedestrian. I would still happily recommend that you seek this book out, but my advice is that you try to take into account both what it is and what it could be in its final form. And what’s wrong with doing a little of the work yourself anyway? Engage your imagination for a change, rather than having everything spelled out for you!

With regards to that speculative future life of this project, there is more than enough on offer for me to want to see this story play out on the big screen. The decision to turn it into an animation is very savvy – allowing for the delivery of high-stakes action and effects on a minimal budget, while with Kalonji on board, Cardinaux and Ruiz have already got a project that will manage to differentiate itself from an arguably oversaturated market of zombie culture. What they need to do with that is use their collaborator’s distinctive art as a platform, and build a unique, suspenseful and emotionally nuanced story. If they do that, they will yield a fantastic end-product, which can provide the substance to live up to its promising style.

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