Friday 6 October 2017

Zombie Lake (Jean Rollin, 1981) Review

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“We better face the fact that zombies have declared war!” Originally to be directed by Jess Franco (Sadomania, Oasis of the Zombies), this cheap-as-chips slice of Eurociné cheese was, for many years, disowned by its replacement director Jean Rollin (A Virgin Among The Living Dead). In a remote French town, several years after the end of World War II, something deadly – and bright green – is rising from the so-called 'lake of the damned'. Zombified Nazis, bare boobs galore, and a complete disregard for the laws of continuity dominate this movie, which was destined to be a drinking game only for those with the hardiest of livers...

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“Let's say I would like an unusual little yarn about that weird lake of yours.” A young woman (Pascale Vital) goes for a stroll through the idyllic Gallic countryside and happens upon a lake. Naturally, this is the perfect time to strip off her kit, sunbathe atop of a fallen tree like a Playboy model, and go for a dip. Unluckily for her, though, beneath the surface – which most assuredly isn't a swimming pool with a bit of black tarp half-hung in the background – lurks a zombie, and not just any zombie, but a zombie Nazi! It emerges from the depths and kills her, and so begins a succession of murders that befall the nubile – and regularly nude – residents of this quaint village.

“Well, the fact is girls are being slaughtered. Get this straight, boy, nobody's going to accuse us!” / “Yeah!” / “Thank you!” After a second death – of a local girl, whose body is delivered to the front door of the town's Mayor (Howard Vernon, The French Sex Murders) – journalist Katya (Marcia Sharif) arrives to uncover the mysteries of the 'lake of ghosts'. As relayed to her by the Mayor (during what must be one of the longest flashbacks in cinema history), the town's lake has a deadly history. As if it wasn't bad enough that black masses, witchcraft, and child sacrifices took place there, the current townsfolk slaughtered a platoon a retreating German soldiers and tossed their bodies into the lake – and now they've returned to exact revenge. As the body count continues to rise, can the villagers fight back, will two outsider policemen be open to the bizarre truth, and can the curse be lifted?

“Wild beast, my ass! Poor idiots. Unbelievable. What do they know?” Suffice it to say, and without an iota of shock in delivering this news, Zombie Lake is a cheap and tacky exploitation movie. However, for all its faults and ridiculous elements (of which there are a great many), it's a lot of fun in that “so bad it's good” kind of way. This isn't to say that the film has no heart to it, because – quite surprisingly for a Eurociné production – there is a rich vein of something deeper buried underneath the pile of bared flesh and day-glow fake blood. During the flashback we see a German soldier (Pierre Escourrou) save the life of a village woman (Nadine Pascale) before they enjoy a fleeting tryst in the mill. Tragically, nine months later, the mother dies after giving birth to Helena (Annouchka) and, of course, the father is slain by the French resistance. Several years later, and with the zombie soldiers rising from the lake, the father returns to the home of his love and meets his child. The cheese factor is high, and yet the delicate – and similarly brief – undead father/living daughter relationship speaks of deeper things. The spectre of war looms like a funereal pall as the horrors of combat literally rise from the depths. Helena is an orphan of the war who finally gets to meet her father – but he's one of the undead – while the father returns only to discover that his lover has died. The fiery climax at the mill, meanwhile, offers up a perverse full-circle as the place of Helena's conception becomes, simultaneously, the site of great violence and eternal relief. Despite all the absurdity, the little girl's plea of “Don't forget me” packs a surprisingly poignant punch.

“The lake! The lake! The lake!” That all said, in the end what Zombie Lake is all about is two simple things: tits and zombie Nazis. The film's crowning achievement (a relative term, of course) is the scene in which an entire female basketball team turn up the lake for a clothing optional splash about, only to be dragged under by the undead platoon. So unabashedly straight forward in its B-Movie goals, the scene was clipped out and inserted wholesale into the clip-show format film Zombiethon, replete with Daniel White's frivolously catchy 'mellow twinkles/dissonant clangs' score. It's amazing that the filmmakers were able to find this many ladies willing to not only strip en masse, but be photographed from below in a swimming pool (the aforementioned piss poor match for the lake's depths). Rewind to the days before broadband Internet, and a videotaped recording of Zombiethon from Sky Movie Max was an eye-opening experience!

“Nothing but apocalypse will reduce them to ashes and give them eternal peace.” Enough about all the norks flopping about, though, what about those pesky zombies? The byword for their look would have to be “inconsistent”. Evidently green body paint and water don't mix, and as such “continuity” proves to be a term that the production mustn't have heard of, as from one shot to another the one-eyed zombie soldier goes from plain-as-day flesh tone skin to bright green paint. Indeed, some of the other zombies are only green up to their wrists, have prosthetic appliances peeling away from their skin, or have their hair sticking out from underneath poorly-fitting bald caps! For a budget this tight it's almost remarkable they managed as much as they did, as the zombies yo-yo in and out of the lake to regularly spew some red paint onto the necks of unsuspecting villagers. Although, the aerial bombing scene in which the actors on the ground have to react to nothing more than sound effects isn't fooling anyone.

“It may be a waste of time, but I'd like to look into it.” Have I mentioned that this film is cheap, and a little bit shoddy in its execution? This, though, is part of the film's charm. The functional, perfunctory direlogue (listen out for the incongruously jaunty “careful” in one of the pub scenes), the dodgy dubbing (and editing), the complete disregard for day/night continuity, giggling extras, crew members traipsing around in the shot (bottom left of frame as the first victim rummages through her bag), power cables and lighting stands left within the frame, and the zombies walking like drunken Brits on holiday with their arms out at a “you want some?” angle, all make for an entertaining watch.

“I fear there's a lot more to this than meets the eye.” From the villager's complete, total, and utter lack of surprise at a topless girl bursting into the pub screaming her head off, to the Eurociné idea of foreplay (mashing a closed mouth against some norks), there is much to enjoy with a wry smile. It may be one of a great, great, great many zombie flicks that cashed-in on the epic wake that George A. Romero's landmark film Dawn of the Dead left behind, but Zombie Lake – despite being a complete shambles – is a scrappy, scruffy, and surprisingly fun slab of European B-Movie exploitation. Connoisseurs of cult movies will be in for a treat with this one, but build a drinking game around it at your own risk!

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