12 April 2007

ZOMBIES & TITS

The confluence of Easter and Grindhouse was not easy for me to ignore. Which is why, in looking for this week's classic movie review (and as it turns out, "classic" is used here in the loosest possible definition), I had two criteria:

-That, in honor of Easter, the movie involved resurrection from the dead.

-That, in honor of Grindhouse, the movie was sleazy.

So basically, I had to find a sleazy zombie movie, and while there are many films that meet that definition, there is one that stands above all the rest in its infamy. Anyone who reviews movies on the web and loves crappy exploitation films encounters this one eventually: Le lac des morts vivants.

Or as it's better known in this country, Zombie Lake. Or sometimes Zombies' Lake. But I thought that if I started with the French title, it might at least seem kind of respectable for a moment or two.

There is at least a small possibility that Zombie Lake is the worst film I have ever seen. Somehow, that doesn't quite fit - the worst film of all time ought to be an agony to live through, and Zombie Lake is just too shithouse crazy to meet that definition. But it is just about the most incompetent film I've ever seen. And thereon hangs a tale.

(Every review ever of this film is karmically required to include this narrative. And the great bulk of reviews are also required to point out that every other review ever already did so).

Jesus Franco is one of the truly notorious names in European exploitation cinema. According to the IMDb, he has directed 188 films - the true number is undoubtedly higher - among them such legends as The Awful Dr. Orloff, Vampyros Lesbos, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, and Female Vampire aka Erotikill akaThe Bare-Breasted Countess aka The Loves of Irina (depending on which of the many competing cuts you're watching), which is to say: here is a man who knows how to direct absolute trash.

So it's no small matter that when he was asked to write and directed a film for Eurociné, from a story by Julián Esteban, he refused on the grounds that the budget was too small. He did, however, write the script for them.

Enter Jean Rollin, no slouch himself in the exploitation circuit (his specialty was vampire lesbian porn, and I am so happy that I found a reason to type that phrase that I'm going to do it a couple of more times just for the hell of it: vampire lesbian porn, vampire lesbian porn). He was happy enough to take Eurociné's money to turn Franco's script into something more or less resembling a movie, but the end result was so appalling to his sensibilities that he had his name replaced with the pseudonym "J.A. Lazer."

Let's make sure everybody got that: Zombie Lake was an embarrassment to a director noted for his vampire lesbian porn.

Awesome!

Here is how the film that so humilated Jean Rollin begins: there are shots of nature and a bit of relentlessly cheesy muzak plays as a brunette woman (no name, and the actress is uncredited) walks to a gazebo on the shore of a lake. She glances around, and doffs her clothes, and before the 1:20 mark, we have our first full-frontal nudity, and I say first, because that is of of course one of the things that Zombie Lake is chiefly known for: lots and lots and lots of naked women.

In one of my favorite moments of the entire film, she pulls out a tiny pair of blue shorts, looks around and tosses them behind her. Why, do you ask, do I love this moment? Because it is desperately honest, I reply. If the purpose here were to make an actual zombie movie, the woman's nudity would just be a thing, without stress or comment. But Rollin teases us by threatening to take the nudity away, and then jokingly reassuring that, no worries, there's the naked lady. See? Still naked. Parading endless nude women is the cheapest and easiest way to keep asses in theater seats, and Rollin makes it impossibly clear that he's not interested in anything but the bare minimum in this instant. Shortly thereafter, the woman is sunning on a log in the lake, and we cut to a close-up pan across her body as the music swells into a choir-like crescendo. This is all before the two-minute mark.

It's an old cliché that if a movie has nudity in the first five minutes, it's not a porno, and that's entirely true of Zombie Lake, a film in which the naked female form is ogled with gynaecological precision, but without any trace of lust. The camera moves over the woman's body without any grace, and the lighting is completely flat - no sculpting to accentuate the shape of her body. I think that it is not possible to be sexually excited by this footage, unless you are teenaged or in prison.

Anyway, the vaginidyll is cut short by the presence of a green man with clay over his left eye, watching from the lake bed. This is our first glimpse of the film's zombie population, and, well:

You see, that's the other thing the movie is noted for: really, really, really bad zombie make-up. Here's another, better image to show what I mean:

(and I'm sorry that the images are a bit dark).

Is it fair to judge a movie that Jess Franco refused to direct because the budget was too small for the poverty of its zombie effects? No, it is not. But it is fair to judge it for how goddamn little the cast and crew seemed to care about what they were doing. Time for another screenshot!

Yes indeed, that is a little plastic tube filled with stage blood you see at the bottom of the frame. No, it is not part of the Nazi costume. That is what the good folks at the IMDb call a "revealing mistake." And you don't get to blame that on the low budget. I can think of one and only one way for a cock-up like that to make it into the final cut of a movie (and it's not just a flash, you can see it for something like two and a half seconds), and it goes something like this:

JEAN ROLLIN: "Okay, cut, print that, let's move on."

THE ACTOR: "Wait, the camera was rolling?"

THE CINEMATOGRAPHER: "I'm sorry, Mr. Rollin, I think you could see the blood tube at the bottom of the frame."

JEAN ROLLIN: "Fuck that, let's go for the next take. Who stole my bottle of vodka?"

Except in French.

And what the hell, here's another one. And again, dark screen grab, which I have only been able to see properly on 50% of the computers I've used to write this post:

If you can't quite make it out, what you're looking at is the bottom of the lake, with a giant blue tarp hanging over the back wall. Hey! Lakes don't have walls! Swimming pools do, though! And why someone thought that hanging a tarp over the wall of a pool would magically make it look like the bottom of a lake is a mystery that I, for one, cannot answer.

The other thing that a low budget cannot excuse is the excessively terrible story, which goes a little bit something like this: after the naked swimmer and another woman die, the residents of Small French Village, led by The Mayor (Howard Vernon, a hero of the Eurotrash exploitation genre) realize that the dark secret from the past has come to take revenge. What is that dark secret? Well, as The Mayor tells the helpfully clueless Katya (Gilda Arancio), a reporter who drifted in because to report on the killings...

During World War II, the village was a Resistance stronghold. One day, the world's smallest Nazi patrol (one jeep, six soldiers) stopped by, and one of the Germans made passionate, explicit, direly unerotic love to a local woman. The Germans were forced out by a combination of sound effects and stock footage, and the local woman learned she was pregnant. Flash forward a few months, and the world's smallest Nazi patrol returns to retake the village. They fail bad, and their bodies are tossed in the town's lake, called the Lake of Ghosts.

Here's where things get fun. The Mayor and a couple of other locals are present in the flashback, looking just exactly like they do in the late '70s. And it most certainly must be the late '70s, to judge from the clothing and VW bus and black dudes with Afros. Yet, when we meet the young girl, Helena (played by the delightfully named Anouchka), she is eleven years old. Time folds in on itself, and the world collapses. And yet Zombie Lake, like the cockroaches, survives the apocalypse.

Anyway, the aquatic Nazi zombies have gotten very bold in their attacks, leading to the film's two greatest scenes, right next to each other. First, they take down a whole team of women basketball players who decide for no apparent reason to play naked volleyball in the lake. Accompanied by music that I couldn't find anywhere on the internet, but it's full of women singing "la-la-la," and sounds exactly like the music that you'd expect out of a parody of a Swedish porn film, which is basically what this sequence is.

Then! Helena is sitting alone in her room when her zombie daddy walks in. They recognize each other instantly and have a lovely bonding moment.

This is juuust about the halfway point of the movie, and for the next forty minutes, here is generally what happens:

-The sole survivor of the basketball team runs topless into a bar screaming about zombies, faints, and is carried up by three young men, presumably to be raped.

-The zombies attack random people.

-The Mayor frets.

-Helena comes up with a plan to stop the zombies. It involves matter-of-factly asking The Mayor for a bucket of fresh blood.

-They stop the zombies.

-Helena has one howler of a final line, on par with "Nobody's perfect" in the pantheon of great final lines, and I'm not remotely willing to spoil it.

Zombie Lake is a perfect storm of bad movie. It is truly stupid, as any movie whose primary arc is the story of a Nazi zombie and his little girl bonding before she kills him must necessarily be. It is truly crass, sticking nudity in wherever it can possibly fit, and giving the world classy images like this one:

And it is, above all other things, truly incompetent. What year is it? Don't care. Make-up? Whatever. This was a film made by a team of seeming professionals who had palpable loathing for the project, and treated every frame with disdain. Not even the films of Ed Wood evince such a low threshold of mere craftsmanship as Zombie Lake. It is manna from the gods of bad movies, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, given two important points: you are not alone, and you have plenty of booze.

A last note: I was alone, and I was sober, when I re-watched this film for this review. And it hurt, but this is the respect that I hold for you, my readers (of course, I just made you read a review of Zombie Lake, which suggests that I do not respect you at all). But I did watch the DVD's original French language track, which does not include subtitles, and I found that only following every few words of dialogue made the film so much easier to stand, I can't tell you.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hell Yeah!

Zombie Lake is a favorite of mine an' Martha's...

I'm just surprised you tracked down this masterpiece - it took the devious enthusiasm of our local polish video store clerk to convince us this was the premiere european art-horror-film of the ages. Boy was he right.

-Nate

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

For a split second, I thought "I shouldn't read this post while I eat this roast beef sandwich, I'll feel gross!" But then I didn't. Really, at all. Thanks for showing me the first five minutes. Let's never do anything ever again.

Portelance said...

Thanks for the review. Surprisingly, the first time I saw the movie I was alone and sober. I think I shall have to repeat it soon as a drunken group experience.