1981 | France, Spain
Director: Jean Rollin
AKA: Le lac des morts vivants
Someone once said that I review too many movies I liked and that I should let myself loose on some films I hated and do the usual riffing and sniping expected in this world of movie websites. Well, sure, I figured, it’s fun every now and again, but for the most part, I’d rather spend my time talking about films I enjoyed. I don’t care so much about what is and is not “good.” All that matters to me is whether the film entertained and interested me, or at the very least, offered up some shred I could deem worthwhile. And since I am a moron easily amused by shiny baubles and trinkets, so it stands that there aren’t that many movies I really find awful, and ones I suspect will be awful I generally avoid.
From time to time, however, something comes along that I feel obliged to view despite the knowledge that it’s going to be dreadful. Nine times out of ten, this means I’m sitting down to watch a bottom-of-the-barrel zombie movie. And when it comes to the bottom-of-the-barrel, it’s hard to sink any deeper than Zombie Lake, a movie so bad that it will actually make you pine for the work of Bruno Mattei. The film was originally conceived as a vehicle for director Jess Franco, whose claim to fame is that he would take pretty much any job offered to him. Franco, however, ended up passing on the job, possibly because there was no scene in the film set in a psychedelic jazz club. Production studio Eurocine, infamous for producing films that were shoddy sleazy junk even by the liberal standards of low-budget cult films, went fishing around for a new sucker willing to attach their name to the movie, and they managed to come up with daft but often brilliant French art-horror director Jean Rollin.
Rollin is as controversial a name as many of the other “is he a hack or a genius” European horror directors that emerged in the 1970s. His specialty was procuring some cloaks from the local theater troupe, a handful of attractive and weird-looking people, and then going out to quickly film an erotic vampire tale, almost always without benefit of a script or, it often seems, even a basic idea of what his movie was going to be about. His artistic goal, if indeed you want to grant him the conceit of such a thing, was to create ethereal, dreamlike experiences that were not bound by classical notions of narrative or logic. At his very worst, he still managed to pack his films with dazzling imagery. Frilly shirts and nudity also abound, of course.
From time to time, he would wander outside the realm of cheap but still strangely opulent gothy vampire movies and into other areas. His first foray into the zombie film, The Grapes of Death, in which the inhabitants of the French countryside are transformed into ghouls by some poisoned wine, is quite good—hypnotic, lyrical, and different from zombie movies that had come before it, most of which conformed to the George Romero scenario of holing your survivors up in a building and having them shout a lot. Rollin, by contrast, keeps most of his action in the rolling green fields and outdoor expanses of French farmland, and the film is all the better for it. So the promise of another Rollin zombie film, even if it was one not of his own design, isn’t as scary to me as it might be to others who don’t have as soft a spot in their heart for the cracked French director as have I. Unfortunately, Zombie Lake bears no resemblance to Grapes of Death, and frankly, hardly bears any resemblance to a movie in general.
The premise is more or less stolen from another Euroshock film called Shock Waves, which incidentally gets a lot less attention than Zombie Lake but is much better, not that it takes much to be better than Zombie Lake. Our film opens with one of the quickest descents into full-frontal female nudity you’re likely to see outside of an outright sex film. I think scarcely a minute goes by before our nameless French woman has slid out of her clothing and started sunbathing herself on the banks of a murky pond. As one would expect from a movie of this caliber, the camera leers relentlessly over her naked form. It is, in a way, the film’s apology, as if it is saying to us, “Look, I am going to be terrible, but at least I’m going to give you a lot of nudity.” Eventually, she goes for a swim, and the camera then takes full advantage of its ability to shoot low-angle, all-revealing shots as she paddles about. Eventually, a green-faced Nazi zombie grabs her and pull her down into the murky depths. All right! What a way to start a film.
This repeats itself a couple of more times, and everyone delights when a whole vanload of volleyball-playing female basketball players (really, the incongruity in sporting events is going to be the least of the film’s transgressions against common sense or basic script checking) strip down to nothingness and let the aquatic bottom-dwelling zombies stare at their various private parts for a while before they swim up and pull them all under as well. Although the women above-surface are shown standing in waist-deep water and having the giggling nude splash-fight in which women engage every time men are not present, when we cut to the below-surface view, they’re all treading water in what looks to be a very deep swimming pool.
A survivor manages to inform the local mayor that he has a nest of undead zombie soldiers in the local nudie pond. He declares a state of emergency and tells us, through a series of flashbacks, how the Nazis came to be sitting at the bottom of the pond waiting for all Europe’s nudists to come skinny-dipping in its uninviting waters. During World War II, the French Resistance had a big face-off with these Nazis and managed to kill them all, but not before one was taken in by a sympathetic village woman who had sex with him, watched him die, then died giving birth to their child. Now, it seems, the Nazi zombies are looking for revenge. Also, maybe the pond is cursed, so that’s the explanation for why they become undead and then linger around down there for a couple of decades.
Eventually, the zombies get around to stumbling into town to do some more killing, preferably of naked women bathing in fields. A little girl, Helena (Anouchka), recognizes one of the flesh-gobblers as her Nazi father, which is stunning since the war must have happened decades ago judging by the cars and fashion on display, yet she is no more than nine years old. For that matter, when we see the mayor in flashbacks as a French Resistance fighter, he’s the same age as he is during the film’s present-day. So maybe this film is set in the 1950s but couldn’t afford to communicate that. With the help of the little girl, they devise a plan to kill the zombies, which all things considered, is pretty easy compared to all the trouble people in other movies have killing off their living dead adversaries.
Make no bones about it, this film is bad. I can valiantly sit through all the nudity, but in the stretches of film between such displays, Rollin manages to achieve a level of boredom I thought impossible. I mean, really. Undead Nazis? That should be good stuff. It was the basis of practically every issue of the old Weird War Tales comic book that used to creep me out so much with its multitudinous illustrations of terrified GIs hiding in some ditch or as ghoulish Nazi skeletons march through some mist-shrouded battlefield. We should have had good stuff like that. But not so. These zombies are awful.
The make-up is just bright green face paint with some flesh wounds pasted on for good measure. Usually, the green paint stops at the neck, behind the ears, and on the arms above the cuff so you frequently see regular healthy pink skin. And in some scenes, the make-up seems to be flaking off entirely, which could be passed off as “nightmarish rotting chunks of flesh” if you didn’t see the normal flesh of the actor underneath it. The promise of a zombie Nazi knife fight turns out to be as slow-moving and tedious as everything else, looking less like a knife fight between undead soldiers than like two guys walking through their knife fight routine for the upcoming production of West Side Story.
Nothing makes much sense, but whereas previous Rollin films make no sense in a dreamlike sort of surreal way, this just makes no sense in the, “You know, I really don’t give a damn about this movie” way. And when in doubt, the movie just throws another naked woman on screen. It’s obvious that Rollin was about as interested in making this film as I was in watching it. Several times I actually caught myself leaning forward and shouting, “Be over! Be over!” at the screen, and always the film taunted me by proving it could drag a boring scene out even longer if it had to. The fiery finale is especially wearisome, but by then you’ll have been lulled into a state of numbness that makes the whole thing palatable. At least it’s proof that the movie will eventually end.
Questions remain, of course, like why, if it was so easy to kill the zombies, did they wait so long to do it? And why does the photographer determined to get some shots of these undead soldiers stand out in the middle of the street with zombies all around her when she could have gotten just as fine a shot from, say the low roof behind her or from behind one of the iron-barred windows in a building lining the street. You know, somewhere where you won’t be surrounded and eaten by zombies as you struggle to rewind your film.
And why do all humanoid monsters that live underwater have to do that thing where they stick one hand above the surface, make the clutchy hand, then slowly let it sink below? What can this possibly accomplish? And why is the lake brackish and overgrown and waist deep on the surface but clear as a swimming pool and fifteen feet deep underwater? I spent a lot of time as a kid swimming in brackish ponds, and I never noticed them to be remarkably clearer underwater. Then, I’m also not a beautiful naked French woman, at least not that I know of, and I tend to try and notice things like that.
It should also be noted that these aren’t actually flesh-eating zombies, either. They just like to bite people on the neck then move on to whoever else doesn’t have clothes on, or at the very least has on a dress that can be hiked up during the attack. What gore is present, however, is shocking only in how fake and un-gory it is. It looks like the actors playing the zombies just press their lips against someone and drool out some fake blood. Horrifying bite wounds look like pieces or ragged cloth placed on the neck.
If you are looking for cheap nudity, then this movie has you covered, or uncovered as it were. If you wanted gore or a story or anything else in addition to the nudity, you’re going to be out of luck. If you are hoping for a flash of that ol’ Jean Rollin magic, look anywhere else. Even his work-for-hire porno films are more artful than Zombie Lake. Naturally, an abomination this foul, this exploitive, this sleazy, and this completely lacking of any redeeming artistic or entertainment value whatsoever, gets my highest recommendation. You may not want to watch it. If you do want to watch it, you’re wrong. Of course, as I write that, I am thinking to myself, “Hmm…I think I want to watch Zombie Lake,” so maybe there is some magic.