1981 | France, Spain
Director: Jean Rollin
AKA: Le lac des morts vivants
My viewing of Zombie Lake was one of those events that lead me to question everything in my life that has led up to it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a “where did I go wrong” moment, because many of the choices that brought me to it couldn’t in themselves be considered mistakes. Nonetheless, when you get to the point where you see watching Zombie Lake as some kind of solemn obligation, it’s a circumstance that bears some investigation. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, amidst all the questioning of how and why, I also found myself asking if there was not some way that all of this could have been avoided.
To some extent, when it comes to Zombie Lake, I am a victim of my own conscientiousness. My desire to shore up my cult movie C.V. led me to engage in a long period of intensely concentrated movie catch-up. Not that I managed to see absolutely everything, of course, but I did try to see as many of the previously unseen touchstone pictures within each of my areas of putative “expertise” as I possibly could. And I will admit that there was not a small number of those with some truly grave oversights among them. I suppose it might amuse the reader if I were to fess up to some of those overlooked titles here, but, then again, to do so would undermine whatever authoritative air my previously described efforts have aided me in faking. And I have enough humiliation ahead of me as it is.
Suffice it to say that this well-intentioned crash course in cult cinema was largely responsible for me getting to the point where I had no choice but to watch, and actually pay attention to, Zombie Lake, which has been reviewed by a shockingly high number of cult film critic, far more so than is warranted by what it delivers. This leads to the obvious question — well, slightly less obvious than the question “Why Zombie Lake?”, which I will get to later — of why, in a decades-long career of horror and B movie watching, I had not, up until just a few days ago, ever seen the film in question. And part of the answer to that, I think, lies in the fact that, while zombie films have definitely had a profound influence on me, they haven’t inspired the completist impulse that certain other subgenres have.
My introduction to zombie movies came at what was obviously an impressionable age, in the form of a local TV broadcast of the original Night of the Living Dead, which is a great picture and might even be an appropriate one for the more hard-bitten preadolescents of today. But for the sensitive pre-adolescent that I was back then, it apparently wasn’t such a good idea. I say this because, in the aftermath of that broadcast, I was left with recurring zombie-themed nightmares that lasted well into my early twenties. These typically involved me desperately struggling, much like the protagonist in the film, to defend a not very well fortified old house against an unrelenting onslaught from wave after wave of flesh-eating ghouls, in the process watching as my friends and loved ones who were inside with me all got bitten and turned against me one by one.
As I got older and became more surly and grandiose, I came to see this dream scenario as reflecting my own relationship with humanity at large — specifically in terms of the overwhelming pressure upon a rabble-rousing free spirit like myself to conform to the stifling ways of The Man. You’re tearing me apart! Whatever the case, though, the fact is that, in the ensuing years, while I became a dedicated follower of the Romero brand — and simply couldn’t avoid seeing Fulci’s Zombie during the VHS boom of the 1980s — I never really went out of my way to see any of the other, off-brand zombie pictures that came out in the wake of Dawn of the Dead. Those I did see were disappointing, which points to what I think is the reason for me having so little interest in such films; I just couldn’t imagine them being anywhere near as terrifying as those nightmares of mine.
Of course, the other reason that I never watched Zombie Lake is that it is fucking terrible.
Zombie Lake is a film that far more people have read about on the internet than have actually seen. The act of deriding it in text has gone from being a simple enactment of the repetition compulsion associated with trauma to a sort of rite of passage for online cult cinema scribes. A simple Google search will bear that out. As I watched it so that I might join my voice to the chorus, the film revealed itself to be startlingly cheap, offensively lazy in both conception and execution, and about as coherent as me trying to explain chaos theory. In fact, I think Zombie Lake deserves some kind of backhanded credit for the fact that, despite how much I’d heard about it, I was still surprised by just how awful it was. Then again, that’s less the result of the extremes of its awfulness than it is of the singular avenues that it takes to get there.
I suppose at this point I should give some background on the genesis of Zombie Lake, which I imagine just involved someone entering a room and shouting “sub-aquatic Nazi rapist zombies” and then someone else writing a small check. As the legend goes, the project was offered to Jess Franco—who passed on it, though he did end up contributing to the script (such as it is). It then fell into the hands of Jean Rollin, who — I assume because he was confronting a career low point that was abysmal beyond the imagining of even his worst nightmares — couldn’t be bothered to imbue the finished product with his trademark poetic touch but did find it within himself to cram it full of gratuitous nudity.
And nudity there indeed is, as is amply evidenced in the film’s opening set piece, a four-minute, full frontal skinny dipping scene in which a diligent cameraman and an extremely generous young actress collaborate to make sure that we see the goods from every conceivable angle. This proffering of such an abundant display of female skin to boost the appeal of a slipshod horror film seems kind of quaint in a contemporary light. These days there are so many different contexts in which one can look at a naked person that it’s hard to imagine anyone but those with the most micro-specifically select tastes seeking out Zombie Lake for that purpose. Because of this, I sadly have to conclude that Zombie Lake‘s days as a masturbatory aid are long behind it, which means that its hopes for legacy depend entirely on future generations of movie bloggers being just as eager to skewer it as the current one.
This introductory bit of frolicking is capped off with a Jaws-style underwater POV shot — filmed, as all of the scenes putatively set beneath the surface of Zombie Lake‘s zombie lake are, in what is very obviously a swimming pool with its walls and signage clearly visible — of our swimmer, filmed from directly underneath as she does wide-legged scissor kicks. Soon her unseen watcher is revealed to be a one-eyed underwater zombie in a German military uniform. Said zombie eventually goes all “Raaar!” and attacks the woman, presumably killing her. Shortly thereafter, this same one-eyed Nazi zombie kills another woman, apparently by spitting a bunch of strawberry jam all over her neck, and in the process manages to have some of his zombie make-up flake off and stick to her face. This second woman, I should mention, is not nude, but when the actors playing her father and his friends later solemnly carry her lifeless body into the town square, they make sure that, as they do so, her dress is hiked up well above her hips.
I’m used to seeing varying levels of quality in the make-up for zombie movies, but again Zombie Lake is really something special in that regard. Typically, a film will have its “star” zombies, whose make-up is more detailed and more gussied up with ghoulish embellishments, and then those background zombies who just get a bit of colored face paint because no one’s going to be looking at them all that much anyway. In Zombie Lake, however, all of the zombies look as if they’ve simply had their faces spackled with green latex paint, often with no one even bothering to paint their hands or even their necks to match. The result makes them look like a bunch of hobo mimes who’ve stumbled upon an abandoned army surplus wardrobe.
And though some of the lesser zombies do have a few bits of grue added to them for character — there is old One-Eye, after all — it is the film’s “star” zombie, played by Pierre-Marie Escourrou, who gets the shoddiest, most slap-dash treatment of all. The reason for this is revealed as the film goes on and it becomes uncomfortably clear that we are meant to see Escourrou’s zombie soldier as sympathetic, which I think explains why those responsible didn’t want to obscure his handsome features with goo to the degree that they did some of his co-stars.
A lady reporter eventually makes her way to the small French village that nestles alongside Zombie Lake, looking for a scoop regarding the strange goings on there. She is directed to the home of the town’s mayor (Howard Vernon), who, after a perplexing exchange of non-sequiturs, launches us into a flashback. It seems that, back during the war, a handsome German soldier (Escourrou again) saved the life of a village girl (Nadine Pascal), and, in return, she rewarded him by screwing him in a hayloft. This plays out as one of those long softcore scenes that are composed mostly of lots of boob nuzzling and some implied downtown action, and is accompanied by a swoony orchestral theme that, due to its ubiquity throughout the film, I think we can refer to as the “Love Theme From Zombie Lake”.
On that subject, Daniel White’s score to Zombie Lake, if it is indeed all his and not partly composed of library music, shows a lot of versatility. My favorite thing about it is the strict line of demarcation that it draws between the film’s porny bits and those bits that are meant to be scary. For instance, in a scene where an entire women’s basketball team strips down for yet another romp in the lake’s waters, we’re treated to a theme that sounds like the score to an especially sprightly European chewing gum commercial, complete with an ebullient chorus singing lots of “la la las” and “bap-a-daps”. Despite the fact that we know exactly what this is all leading to, White never comes in with any of the types of ominous or foreboding music that might bum us out and spoil the nudity. So, when the killing actually starts, and the score abruptly switches from “bap-a-dap” to somber church organ music, it’s all the more jarring. The man is also no slacker in laying on the syrupy Montovani-esque moodscapes whenever the film’s frequent and incredibly misguided romantic interludes call for it.
It turns out that the union between the handsome Nazi and the village girl results in a child — a child whom the girl announces will be named Helena, making the kid one of the few people in Zombie Lake lucky enough to have a name. Unfortunately, no sooner has the soldier learned of his pending fatherhood than he has to return to the front. More unfortunately for him, on the way, he and the group of soldiers he is traveling with are ambushed by a bunch of French resistance fighters and killed, after which they are unceremoniously dumped into Zombie Lake. Okay, it’s not really referred to by anybody in the movie as “Zombie Lake”, but rather as “The Lake of the Damned”. The mayor informs us that the lake has been a locus of spooky goings on since at least the middle ages, I think, which somehow explains why the Nazis are now becoming reanimated and attacking any woman who just happens to be tending to her completely naked business within the vicinity of the lake.
Though the mayor later claims that the zombies have “declared war” upon the village, for the first part of the film the zombies don’t seem to have much of a battle plan. They pretty much limit their actions to lumbering out of the lake to kill any woman who is showing some skin, after which they just slink back into the lake again — often with one particular zombie affecting a sort of Marcel Marceau “walking against the wind” stride that is totally awesome. That is, of course, until it is revealed that the main zombie’s love child, Helena, is still residing in the village and has now become a strangely affectless little girl who appears to be in the neighborhood of about ten years old. This would place the action in Zombie Lake sometime during the mid-1950s, even though people are driving late-seventies model cars and wearing flared trousers and hot pants. Also, the fact that Helena (Anouchka) is strangely affectless may or may not be a character point, as pretty much everyone else in Zombie Lake is strangely affectless too.
Thanks to the woozy strings and teardrop piano runs of the “Love Theme From Zombie Lake”, we are clued into the fact that the reunion between Helena and her Nazi zombie dad, when it finally occurs, is indeed a moving one, even though the two of them are just staring at each other without expression. Dad decides to take Helena with him – Where? Back into the lake? – but must first have a zombie knife fight with One Eye, who sees Helena in much less sentimental terms than her dad does. Finally, after many more naked people have tragically lost their lives, the authorities convince Helena that it would be best for all involved if she would assist them in killing her dad and his green-faced associates, leading us into an underwhelming climax whose details, for the sake of those many of you who are going to rush out and see the film as soon as you’re done reading, I will not reveal.
While all that I had read about Zombie Lake had effectively shielded me against disappointment, I have to confess that there was one aspect of the film in particular that left me feeling a bit let down, and that was the movie’s lack of gore. As any zombie movie fan knows, a few effectively gruesome set pieces, no matter how ham-fistedly executed, can really go a long way towards helping dross like this go down. Unfortunately, all that we get in Zombie Lake is people being sprayed with red syrup and then the zombies mushing it around on them with their mouths. It is for this reason that I feel that Zombie Lake is that rare horror film that would actually have been better if Bruno Mattei had directed it. Yes, I said it. With Mattei, we wouldn’t see any perceptible increase in quality, but we probably still would have gotten some nudity, and he would have also at least thrown in someone getting gorily turned into a human hand puppet or something.
That said, however, I couldn’t help getting a bit of a kick out of Zombie Lake. True, it is a textbook example of a movie that was simply crapped out by its makers, all of whom were people who could have done better if they had cared to. As such, it stands as an insult to its audience that is brazen to the point of seeming deliberate. But in the case of those — present company included — who would dare watch it in this day and age, given the abundant advice to the contrary that is available to them, it is an insult that is richly deserved. And one that I, for my part, cheerfully accept. No matter how much I run Zombie Lake into the dirt, I can’t deny the enjoyment I got out of watching it. Its combination of schmaltzy sentimentality, surprisingly forthright sleaze, and apathetic horror movie pastiche really does add up to something fairly unique. At a time when so much cinematic product seems to stubbornly stick to the median, that’s something you just can’t take for granted. It is a movie that is not only terrible, but that, in the course of being terrible, seems to be exploring new ways of doing so. With watching it comes the thrill of seeing cinema that is boldly reaching downward toward new nadirs.
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