❉ Zombie Lake is a ludicrously watchable piece of laugh-a-minute hokum.
So…‘Zombie Lake’, then.
Let’s get this out of the way, first. Those of you who read my Mysticism in Film column may recall I advised against including ‘Zombie Lake’ in Jean Rollin’s oeuvre. I use words like oeuvre because I’m deeply pretensions, dontcha know.
The point is, as a snobby, snooty cinema buff, I’ve openly dismissed ‘Zombie Lake’ as not a “proper” Jean Rollin film (and to be fair, it really is the odd one out; he’s credited only as an actor and wouldn’t admit to directing it for years) but even if we were dealing with one of his mid-70s, pay-the-rent Michel Gentil/Robert Xavier skinflicks, I’d be chomping at the bit to review it. And not just because of the boobs.
Credited to “J.A. Laser” (Jean Rollin and Julian de Laserna), the film was originally set up for Jess Franco, who either fell out with the producers or simply buggered off to direct a dozen other movies for someone else, depending on who you believe. The “creative differences” story seems more likely as Franco remounted the story himself a year later as ‘Oasis of the Zombies’ (1982), and both films feel like someone (in this case Franco under the pseudonym “A.L. Mariaux” and Julián Esteban as “Julius Valery”) wrote the premise on a napkin over a boozy lunch after watching ‘Shockwaves’ (1977). Rollin was asked to direct literally as he was leaving for a weekend away and turned up on the Monday morning to find he had a troubled production on his hands.
Is it any good, though? Well, no, but that’s not the point. The point is, is it worth watching? It’s a film about zombie Nazis terrorising hot naked French girls with Howard Vernon playing the mayor, who in an interesting subversion of ‘Jaws,’ acknowledges the threat, yet mostly sits in his study explaining the plot. A van containing a women’s basketball team arrives at one point just so they can get their kit off and have a good old naked frolic to creepily cheery porn music. Hell yeah, it’s worth watching.
Starting off with a disreputably voyeuristic scene involving a luscious, evenly tanned Euro brunette (Pascale Vital) deciding it’s too hot to wear clothes (naturally), her uninhibited solo skinny dipping is rudely (and I mean VERY rudely) observed from below by a voyeuristic member of the sub-aquatic undead of the far-right persuasion. He has an eye out, so it’s tempting to wonder if these slavering deadites aren’t suffering the ill effects of too much wanking. Unfortunately, as is always the case, being hot and naked in these sorts of films gets you killed (and just as an aside, you can’t help but wonder if Rollin’s distaste for the film stems from the fact that the majority of his work is essentially feminist; he didn’t get to read the script until production began).
What’s most interesting is that while there’s a substantial lack of Rollin’s stamp on the project, Franco’s shadow looms over the thing like a Mabusian puppet master, controlling proceedings—at least, on a stylistic level–from an asylum cell, where he was probably busy filming Lina Romay masturbating… Again. In place of Rollin’s painterly compositions, we get Franco’s edgy, zoom-happy camera work courtesy of cinematographer Max Monteillet, who would go on to shoot both ‘Oasis of the Zombies’ and several more Rollin projects including ‘Living Dead Girl,’ (1982) and the beautiful ‘Lost in New York’(1989). The score, sourced from library tracks of Daniel White’s music from other films, including his haunting ‘Female Vampire’ theme, makes the whole thing even more Francoesque. Rollin plays a police inspector, which is exactly the sort of role Franco would have earmarked for himself. You wonder if Franco actually shot some footage in the final cut before flouncing off, possibly also objecting to the no doubt Eurocine-imposed misogyny. Thing is, despite accusations of sexism, Franco has expressed downright militantly feminist views himself. True, he was a pervert and voyeur, and often traded principles to pay the rent, but he worshipped women and Eurocine had recut his films before to include some pretty sexist content.
The strip ‘em and kill ‘em formula bares the hallmark of producer Marius Lasoeur. Nevertheless, there’s a few moments that feel like pure Rollin, like when the body of a murdered girl is carried through the village to the sound of a church bell The Mayor’s Residence, looks like one of the weird rural follies usually inhabited by his vampires are very easy on the eye. There’s flashback to a World War II skirmish that’s competently mounted, along with a couple of battle scenes cribbed from better movies interspersed with scenes of Nazi cosplayers cruising around in a truck. And if you don’t like any of that, guv, there’s tits to gawp at.
Despite being generally terrible, ‘Zombie Lake’ is nevertheless entertaining. It’s a ludicrously watchable piece of laugh-a-minute hokum. In fact, the very reason why I wanted to review it so badly was not just to defend Rollin’s reputation but to actually defend the film itself. It’s actually no worse (and in many cases considerably better) than the rest of Eurocine’s Nazi-derived product of the period. See if you can spot the actress who’s clearly questioning her career choices as her compatriots disrobe around her. There’s a scene where a panicked naked girl bounces into a tavern that made me blurt out my coffee; see if you can spot the chivalrous male extra who doesn’t know where to look. Anyone who runs away from the zombies immediately falls over. A sex scene turns up involving two people who look like they escaped from the Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ video, nylon wigs and all. The “touching” scenes between a zombie and his inexplicably nonchalant daughter won’t leave a dry seat in the house. It’s one of those great crack-open-some-beers-and-watch-it-with-sympathetic-friends movies, and you’ll wake up the next day wondering if you dreamt the whole thing.
The transfer on the Black House Films disc is exceptionally clean, with nice contrast and pleasing image quality for this sort of film. Considering it was probably shot on the cheapest of film stocks it’s the best it’s ever looked. Two different cuts where originally released; this is the full-length version. The sound mix is excellent. Clearly Screenbound Entertainment (owners of the Black House imprint) have taken a lot of care over this release, appreciating that there’s an audience for pop-surrealist oddities like this.
❉ ‘Zombie Lake’ is released on 20 March 2017 by Black House Films. Cat No: BH001, RRP: £12.99.