TREASURES OF THE LIVING DEAD: The Eurocine Aesthetic in ZOMBIE LAKE and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES
Noise artist and longtime Eurotrash cinema fan Sam McKinlay (THE RITA) weighs in the unique charms of this dream-team double bill.
It’s often enlightening to listen to things from the horse’s mouth when forging any kind of exacting philosophy concerning genre cinema and the historical import of certain films. Below is a heralded example from actor Howard Vernon, taken from an interview in the now defunct – but mandatory – European Trash Cinema magazine*:
On Eurocine’s ZOMBIE LAKE:
“Rollin is a very nice, intelligent person but that film is really a piece of shit. This was not Rollin’s fault since he was hired shortly before shooting. The original director refused to do that crap. I only did the film because they paid me good money. But that is the way things usually go.”
On Eurocine’s ORLOFF AND THE INVISIBLE MAN:
“Oh yes. The usual Eurocine crap. Some people say that Chevalier’s another of Franco’s many, many pseudonyms, but that is not true. Chevalier is nothing more than a very, very bad French director who usually made cheap sex movies.”
ZOMBIE LAKE (aka LE LAC DE MORTS VIVANTS) from 1981 and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (aka THE TREASURE OF THE LIVING DEAD) from 1982 are two examples of genre filmmaking that are often talked about, written about, and discussed openly by the directors and actors as virtual cash-grabs instigated by Eurocine to further exploit the possibilities made popular by the 1977 US-made underwater Nazi zombie classic SHOCK WAVES by Ken Wiederhorn (starring none other than Peter Cushing). Underwater Nazi zombies, and Nazi soldier zombies in general, are a very distinct subgenre of European trash cinema whose popularity was propagated further – through precarious circumstances – by Jesus Franco (OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES) and Jean Rollin (ZOMBIE LAKE, directed under the pseudonym J.A. Laser). I once tried to have an original Wizard Video big box VHS copy of ZOMBIE LAKE signed by Jean Rollin, only to have him loudly exclaim in broken English, “The movie is a piece of garbage. I will only sign the box as J.A. Laser.” Apparently ZOMBIE LAKE was not a film anyone was proud to be a part of. Vernon even suggests that its original director Jess Franco “never showed up on set” (as corroborated by various reviewers and historians before him), as Franco already thought the project was unsalvageable during the writing stage.
But despite the sentiments expressed by Vernon and others who had an interior view of Eurocine’s filmmaking process, ZOMBIE LAKE is an incredibly interesting cumulative document of the output of the French production house, as it conceptually deconstructs the visual language of past Rollin and Franco works and amalgamates them into a roughly-tuned, somewhat cockeyed piece. ZOMBIE LAKE centers on a small provincial French town that was once the locus of an altercation between French partisans and WWII German soldiers that results in the German soldiers being killed and dumped in the town’s local lake in an attempt to cover up the incident. During the occupation predating the partisans’ successful ambush, one of the local French women bedded a German soldier, resulting in a daughter that the soldier inevitably never got to meet. Years later, the waters are disturbed by various nude women swimming in the lake, instigating the return of the Nazi soldiers in all their green, swamp-infused makeup glory, as they clamber from the bottom of the shallow lake and overcome the various women in vicious throat attacks. Things take a strange(r) turn when one of the Aryan undead recognizes his daughter from photographs and a keepsake, resulting in a mutual affection and the daughter’s eventual realization that her father can be an ally in mediating another ambush on the zombies.
ZOMBIE LAKE has an overtly theatrical aesthetic from the moment the zombies are first portrayed lurking in the depths of the lake; as the underwater shots are clearly shot in a tarp-and-milfoil-adorned swimming pool, the backdrop for the zombies has the kind of virtual cheap set atmosphere seen in an abstract stage play. When they slowly climb from the lake in the film’s most famous scenes, the zombies’ faces are vividly green with stage make-up, almost like an ode to the blue makeup featured in 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (which had tremendous European exposure as a Dario Argento co-production). The green hue is suggestive of the film’s haunted lake context, but also gives the meandering creatures a distinct theatrical presence that recalls Rollin’s preoccupation with clown makeup, as seen in such films and LES DEMONIAQUES (1974) and REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (1971). This abstracted and garish un-reality also extends to some of the more classic zombie make-up techniques of the ‘Italian style’, most notably Giannetto De Rossi’s zombie appliqués from Andrea Bianchi’s BURIAL GROUND (1981) and Lucio Fulci’s seminal ZOMBIE (1979).
Throughout, Rollin’s fetishism informs the strange construction of the film, with the nude swimmers offering more of a classic, uncomfortably erotic spectacle, while the portrayal of the terrestrial victims drives home his love of tableaux, and the posing of the female form as a tragic spectacle. A dead woman is carried by the villagers to the town hall, her body sensually strewn on the ground with her legs and crotch exposed, not unlike the identical female figures on the posters for Barbara Peeters’ HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980) and Fulci’s NEW YORK RIPPER (1982). It is only when the Mayor (Howard Vernon) emerges from the front doors that anyone makes an attempt to treat the girl’s body with appropriate respect, closing her eyes and pulling her skirt down to cover her nakedness. In another sequence, Rollin depicts a half-naked woman who escapes the zombies and runs into the local pub before a myriad of male onlookers. As she panics in terror and disturbs the serenity of the pub atmosphere, her vulnerable body lashing out and having to be held and calmed by the townsfolk, the viewer can see parallels to the pub scenes from Rollin’s masterpiece LES DEMONIAQUES; even the distinct European character aesthetic of the women’s faces is similar, with the female reporter in ZOMBIE LAKE bearing a striking resemblance to the great Monica Swinn, who plays one of the pub prostitutes in DEMONIAQUES.
As with many of Rollin’s films, the aesthetic techniques that propel a film like ZOMBIE LAKE convey an amazing aptitude and historical obsession with cinema which can also be seen in the zombie bayonet fight that takes place when the zombie father takes on one of his fellow zombies in a dispute over the daughter. The scene is so reminiscent of the knife fight near the end of the classic Val Lewton-produced GHOST SHIP (1943) that one couldn’t even fathom such a reference popping up in a film like ZOMBIE LAKE, were it not for Rollin’s encyclopedic knowledge of horror cinema (even if it was mostly subconscious).
These surreal, atmospheric and historical themes are also prevalent in Jesus Franco’s 1982 film OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES. Much has been debated as regards the film’s two different versions – the Spanish-only version LA TUMBA DE LOS MUERTES VIVIENTES (1983) featured none other than actress Lina Romay and lacked the celebrated English dubbing – but not a lot has been discussed in terms of the aesthetic and historical cinema references that abound in Franco’s film.
OASIS is an adventure story of yet another WWII altercation, this time between the British and the Germans over a German transport of gold in the African desert. A violent shootout leaves all but one Captain Blabert dead, but not before the Germans have managed to hide the gold somewhere on the site. As time goes on, the elusive fortune is pursued by various parties, including the former charge of the German regiment who murders Blabert after gaining information on the gold’s whereabouts. Back in London, Blabert’s son gets word of his father’s untimely death, and decides to team up with some friends on a hunt for the gold. Along the way they meet some local filmmakers who also tag along for the adventure. But as we discover early on (with the deaths of two scantily-clad vacationing women), anyone who disturbs the cursed desert oasis awakens the undead Nazi soldiers and succumbs to their flesh-eating frenzy.
The historical background of the film is tightly rooted in cinematic examples of the ATLANTIDE story of British soldiers finding the lost world of Atlantis in the middle of the desert under desperate circumstances, first directed under that title by Jacques Feyder in 1921 and starring the vamp actress Stacia Napierkowska (who also starred as Irma Vep in the 1915 epic LES VAMPIRES). The film was later remade in 1932 by G.W. Pabst (of PANDORA’S BOX fame) under the title MISTRESS OF ATLANTIS, starring Brigitte Helm as Antinea, the queen of Atlantis. Two seminal classic features that undoubtedly influenced Franco in his construction of the first act of OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, as the British soldier finds himself stranded in the desert after the battle and is saved by robed and masked men who bring him to a secluded villa to be cared for by a beautiful hostess. Unlike ATLANTIDE, the hostess doesn’t drive him to murderous madness with her sexuality, but the set-up for the rest of the film establishes the haunted quality of the desert through the mysteries of the hidden oasis and the undead who are guarding the gold by means of its haunted curse.
As the contemporary search parties find the oasis and fall victim to the Nazi zombies, Franco’s style is ever apparent in his use of dynamic close-ups and obscure framing for many of the sequences. Unlike Rollin’s more theater-staged style of long lens shots, Franco likes to be right in there for the various erotic and violent exploits. Like ZOMBIE LAKE, some of the zombie attack sequences are filmed on a set, this time not in a pool, but on a sand-covered blanket in a small room to look like night, as women are munched on by the zombies. The influence of Giannetto De Rossi’s make-up technique is also highly visible, but further exaggerated in that the zombies’ faces are covered with crust and rot, with bulging and rotting eyes clearly glued to the top of the actors own eyes – a trend made popular during the possession sequences of Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS (1972) as well as Franco’s earlier ORLOFF films.
The most famous of the zombies is the skeletal rotted puppet that is clearly held on a stick, complete with Amando De Ossorio-style BLIND DEAD hands that grasp at the actors, culminating into a chaotic fight with the zombies that mimics the escape sequences of Ossorio’s NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS from 1973 (which also takes place in Africa). Also similar to ZOMBIE LAKE is the drab lighting and coloring characteristic of the film stock used by Eurocine; but rather than hazy blues and greens, OASIS is blanketed with bleak beiges and pale browns, as well as backlit walking zombie landscape sequences reminiscent of the previous year’s DAWN OF THE MUMMY that give the film that look of crude authenticity that Eurocine is famous for.
Image put out nice DVD versions of ZOMBIE LAKE and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES years ago, but Redemption is stepping things up with HD Blu-ray editions, newly mastered from the archival negatives, while still featuring enough grain and speckle to maintain that sense of abstract impressionism that fans have come to appreciate. The extras here were introduced with the previous Image releases – alternate title sequences, alternate clothed sequences on ZOMBIE LAKE, trailers – but a nice feature is the French language option on both films (which is a gorgeous gesture for the complexities described above), with an alternate dubbed track for those who want the more dissociative experience.
It’s strange buying these Redemption DVD reissues of the films from Kino, where you’d usually be buying more conventionally classic US and European cinema, but with the reasoning above, it makes sense to this writer to be putting something like Terence Young’s classic theater/ballet musical BLACK TIGHTS (1960) in the same shopping cart as ZOMBIE LAKE. This cinematic reappraisal is long overdue, and these important DVD/Blu-ray releases a testament to the genius of Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco and Eurocine producers Marius and Daniel Lesoeur.
RIP Jesus Franco – Among so many other things, thank you for framing Monica Swinn and Pamela Stanford for me – my true Eurocine obsessions.
*Howard Vernon Interview
European Trash Cinema Vol. 2, number 5
Interview conducted by Peter Blumenstock, Lucas Balbo, Christian Kessler, Michael Nabenborg
See Chris Alexander’s tribute to the late Jess Franco HERE.