Thursday, September 4, 2008

Back on the Horse

After a summer’s hiatus from my writings on the world of the living dead, filled with complicated movie shoots, recording an album, sitting on my first zombie literature panel as an expert, getting several of my friends arrested, spending a small period as a jobless lout, the odd obligatory networking stint, parties, weird social encounters, and the watching of an awful lot of bad movies. There were some good films I suppose, but god and my friend Sarah know that this is not the point of this here website. The point, my avid students, is the bad ones…

The Living Dead Girl
by Jean Rollin

Three average Italian men (tight pants, receding hairlines, one of them’s overweight, faded pastel colors) roll barrels of toxic waste into a mine that leads to a mausoleum with two coffins in it. One of the men seems to think this is a bad idea; his portly friend puts his mind at rest. Then what the DVD sleeve tells me is an earthquake shakes one of the two coffins open and the toxic waste spills out, burning one of the guys’ face off. The other wakes up after the rubble slide and looks in the open coffin lid. He gets his eyes gouged out for his trouble. The gouger steps out of her coffin and reveals herself to a blonde in a white gown with bangs. She gets out, wanders around, is spotted by our other heroes, an American and his foreign wife, and finds the house she used to live in. She returns home to discover that the house is now on the market. How’s this for a sales pitch? “They say the family’s still buried in the basement…Have you seen the piano?” Verbatim, friends, verbatim. So the girl, her name is Catherine Valmont, begins flashing back to her childhood. These flashbacks mostly consist of sitting alone with a brown-haired girl named Hélène. The two girls promised to be friends forever and engaged in one of those blood-pacts the kids are so crazy about, which gives Catherine the idea that maybe Hélène is the one person who will understand her predicament. What predicament, you ask? Well Rollin never makes it clear, but we can assume it has something to do with Catherine's thirst for viscera. It’s just sort of one of those unspoken things in zombie films of any type. I guess Rollin took for granted that the audience assumed that this was a zombie film like any other.

What’s left? Well Catherine kills the realtor and her boyfriend when they return that night to fool around in the big empty manse. Hélène shows up just in time to clean up the bodies and piece the whole mess together. “Why didn’t they tell me you were alive?” So Hélène decides, without telling anyone, that she’ll help lure unsuspecting meat back to the castle so that Catherine can feast on the flesh of the living. Then the American and his wife quarrel about whether the eerie girl in the picture is alive or dead. In the end the wife does a lot of pissing and moaning about her investigation and shows up unannounced at the castle to take Catherine’s picture. She has, for no real reason, decided to take it upon herself to play detective. Her obnoxious interactions with her husband are thus half of what we will be treated to in this film. Their scenes are probably my favorite, as they have a Franco-esque contempt for second takes, but before my evaluation, a few words.

I’ve tangoed with Jean Rollin, the “director” of such shambling schlockfests as The Grapes of Death and Zombie Lake before, and each time I’ve just gotten angry. Why did I decide now was the time for round 3? While in one of my favorite independent bookstores a few weeks back, I picked one of those horror film guides that are so in vogue these days and flipped to the section the authors called “Art Horror”. (since my dad’s novel has been accepted for publication, I’ve been given a whole new perspective on the way books get published, and so it makes sense that so many horror books should be promoted and published at the same time. one of these books, Zombie CSU by Jonathan Maberry, I may have to review here, despite it’s obvious dissonance with the usual fare on this here site. Maberry, like myself, is a horror addict. The man’s something of a minor miracle in the horror world, someone who knows as many facts as he does films. His book Vampire Universe is a blast. I met him through my dad and sister, and he agreed to help with my film, the one that got put on hold after the arrests. Anyway, this is all more than you need to know to understand The Living Dead Girl, which is of course, a night’s worth of drinking or someone with as sick a sense of humour as me to watch it with). The book in question, Horror Films by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc, touches on some of my favorite horror films (Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, The Evil Dead and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu) and there in the midst of those masterpieces we have Rollin’s Living Dead Girl. “Bullshit!” I thought, “There’s no way there’s some hidden work of genius hiding in this fuckhead’s canon.” Yet they spoke so highly of it; it worried me. They seemed to have decent taste otherwise, but then again, even geniuses have guilty pleasures. Soon, paranoia got the better of me, and there I was watching Living Dead Girl. Don’t ever let peer pressure get to your netflix queue, I assure you, you’re gonna regret it real soon. I can't tell you how many times I've followed the recommendation of horror guys and found myself staring at 90 minutes of excruciating torture.
What we have here is a disregard for logic that is almost sublime. Rollin’s screenplay suggests nothing more than his writing down ideas as they came to his head and then refusing to look at them again after he’d written them. His direction is much the same; we nearly have a repeat of Lina Romay’s stumbling into the camera from Female Vampire. Facts mean nothing to this guy. Take the opening. An earthquake is supposed to shift enough earth to move the toxic waste barrels in the mine, yet the van outside is intact and the coffins don’t tumble to the floor. There on the coffin is a plaque with the internee’s name on it. The kind you’d find in a school gymnasium with VIP’s names on it. Then once Catherine Valmont gets out of her tomb she traipses around the countryside only to come back to the basement she just left. Rollin seems to have taken for granted that we wouldn’t recognize the fact that the mausoleum she leaves is in the basement of the house she enters later that day. WHY WOULDN’T SHE JUST CLIMB THE STAIRS TO THE HOUSE? And why are the torches in the mausoleum already lit? Because she needed to be seen by the photographer and her husband, of course. The husband and wife’s dialogue, nay, their existence, is a testament to Rollin’s detachment from reality. Their lines are, best as I can figure, an amalgamations of sayings strung together haphazardly.
A real snatch of Dialogue:
The husband puts a camera around his wife’s neck

“There. A Perfect fit.”
“I’m an actress.”

There’s a scene where the two of them are pouring over the wife’s photographs and talking about the living dead girl. Midway through their conversation the wind kicks up and knocks their food off the table and blows their photographs around. Take 2 not an option, Jean?

Then there are other wonderful things like when Hélène tries to figure out Catherine’s damage after cleaning up two dead bodies from the night before. When Catherine doesn’t speak, Hélène goes into the barn and comes back with a dead pigeon in her hands, which she refuses. I guess this is how Hélène figures out that Catherine needs people and not animals. How did she catch and kill a pigeon? She a fucking ninja all of a sudden? Weirdly, Marina Pierro who plays Hélène is a decent enough actress. I say this because in a Rollin film, she still puts in a decent enough performance. And next to Françoise Blanchard’s mute hero, and Carina Barone’s high-strung journalist, she could be Gena Rowlands. Rollin’s complete lack of logic aside, what really mars this whole affair is the fact that the cinematography and gore effects are about as lifeless as possible. The whole thing is lit too well. It’s the failing of many early 80s horror film and it looks like it might have been shot on video; things move too fluidly, all the colors are too bright, the look of the film elicits no tension whatsoever. The gore is really the bare minimum they could have done; the first (and only) victim Hélène and Catherine lure to the castle is killed with a sword. Hélène rubs the sword against the girl’s stomach and blood is smeared on it. Brilliant work, Jean. In fact, all around, Brilliant work. What anyone sees in you, I just don’t know.

I find it interesting that Redemption video proudly distributes a good many of Rollin's films and yet the works of Larisa Shepitko, Kaneto Shindo, and Marcel Camus are all but unavailable on DVD in the United States. I don't think I need to explain why this is unfair. If this film's wretchedness hadn't provided an evening's entertainment I'd be extremely pissed.

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