Greetings, my horror rockin’ amigos.
I once made the claim that I love horror so much that I can find merit in any (and so far, every) horror movie. The deal is that should I fail, I will send you prizes! So far though, I’ve not been bested. However, from this day forth, what I am willing to offer along with my review, is a mystery consolation prize, should you fail.
This time, I was challenged by Patrick Loveland (thank you) to review Jean Rollin’s 1981 chomp/erotica-fest, Zombie Lake. Dude, if you send your details to Jim he'll pass them on to me and your prize will be in the post!
Spoilers ahead, and here goes…
The late Jean Rollin is a French director known for his many supernatural-themed movies, as well as his stint as a director in the adult entertainment industry. He began his film career by making shorts about things he cared about, worked his way into feature films, took some time out from his usual shtick to direct porn, and then returned to what he loved most.
Zombie Lake was made in the tail end of Rollin’s porn movie stint, and is (in my opinion) a reflection of how the director’s views on women and sex changed during his time in the sex industry. The porno influences are rife, and female sexuality acts almost as a motif for the theme of the movie.
We begin with what looks like any late 70’s porn movie introduction (I mean.. I assume.. I haven’t seen.. I mean I don’t watch.. WHAT SHUT UP). Glorious lake and woodland surroundings, lone beautiful woman, delightfully tacky yet suggestive soundtrack. She takes all of her clothes off and goes for a swim. After a good few minutes of swimming action, a gross zombie emerges in the water to hunt the poor woman down.
What’s notable in this opening scene is the metaphor of the grainy, unseen underbelly of the sexual representation of women in this era, and it’s still relevant today. To the viewer, this scene could be perceived as sexually excessive (what with all the vagina shots and all) – the nameless woman is merely an object of visual stimulation. But to the woman, she has merely gone for a swim alone, out of the reach of prying eyes. For her, her body isn’t a hole goal. It isn’t the naked woman who makes this scene sexual; it’s the viewer that mentally applies the sexy context. It’s us, judging her as we watch. It’s us, not only criticising the character, but perhaps even the actress, because she has been willing to bare all for the entertainment of the masses. She’s been willing to let a load of horny horror fans get their jollies by looking at her. Or perhaps she was just a body-confident actor who was doing her job?
Decades ago, Gary Oldman once swam naked in a film. Thanks to a graceful little twirl in the water, we saw everything. He went on to co-star in a few of those child-favourite Harry Potter movies. Daniel Radcliffe went full frontal on stage, before the Potter mania had even nearly subsided. We applaud them, as perhaps we should, for taking their craft seriously and hanging up their insecurities for the sake of art.
By contrast, Elizabeth Berkley starred in the cult classic Showgirls, playing a stripper. The character has a liberal view towards sex and her own sexuality, and the very nature of the story dictates a fair amount of nudity. Berkley has survived as an actor by mostly taking small roles in shows ever since, but it’s generally accepted that Showgirls killed her career.
We all know how this goes… why didn’t she have some respect for herself and turn down a naked role? I mean, doesn’t she have any morals? What did she expect would happen to her career? Meanwhile, we’re saluting Radcliffe for being brave enough to risk and show it all in a live theatre. He’s one of Britain’s sweethearts and we love him all the more for simply having the guts to showcase his magic wand. Berkley, it’s safe to say, will forever be remembered as ‘that girl from Saved by the Bell who basically made a lap dance porno’, whilst Radcliffe receives admiring comments for choosing a dangerous and artistic role as a naked horse pervert.
What does this have to do with Zombie Lake, I hear you ask? Well, my friends, everything. Rollin was a director with something to say and he made movies for the love, not the money, as evidenced by his poor finances. There’s a point to everything he made, and whether or not the effects are good or the acting is poor is beside the point because he was shooting for sending a message, rather than banking a blockbuster.
When we return to the naked swim scene, we see how Rollin merges the innocent act of the woman with the projected pollution of the viewer’s perception. At first, the lake is clear and clean, but when the zombie is introduced, we actually see that it’s full of scum and filth. Suddenly, what she sees changes and she is no longer a person, but an object under the devouring zombie’s male gaze. We won’t feel sorry for this woman as she is dragged down; we’ll wonder what she expected would happen when she chose to swim in such a dirty environment anyway. *Dramatic air grab*… Oh yeah, that’s right guys.. Rollin isn’t the only one who can smack you with metaphors around these parts. Here.. I’ll do another one – she becomes something to be enjoyed as the zombie rises. Wait, that’s not a metaphor. If anything, that’s more of an innuendo. In your end-o. Now that’s what I call a Zombeaver. Beaver because vaginas. *Slaps myself* Ahem, sorry.
As the film progresses, we find out that the town folk are aware of the zombies, in fact, some of them are the reason that the zombies are there. Set during WW2, the zombies are dead German soldiers whose bodies were disposed of into the lake by the French resistance. For whatever reason, the lake rejects the corpses and brings them back to un-life. The Mayor has had enough of their gross, watery, chompy mouths, and thus begins the plan to get rid of them once and for all. One of the zombies - we’ll call him ‘Dad’ - is the fallen lover of one of the village women, who sadly died after she gave birth to their daughter, Helena (we learn this backstory via a flashback scene). Dad returns to Helena, who is still a child but now old enough to recognise, but not fear, his nature. They bond. And then the Mayor forces her to lure Dad and his zombie pals into a trap in which they all get set alight, and that’s the end of the undead right there.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie is full of things you can criticise. You can gripe about self-aware, undead zombies, if you wish. You can laugh at the terrible make-up and special effects. It’s not on par with The Room for bad acting, but there’s a handmaiden who steals every scene she’s in with accidental hilarity in her line delivery.
But let’s divert our attention to what’s good about it, shall we?
Firstly, Rollin understands horror well enough to know how to balance the dialogue to action ratio. How many times have you seen a horror film that was rubbish, but could have been brilliant, if they had just shut the hell up? Nothing ruins tension more than unnecessary dialogue, and nothing builds it more than silence. Rollin uses the exclusion of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound in all the right places. There are scenes in which there is no dialogue whatsoever, and the tone and impending doom are conveyed entirely through the soundtrack. The actual music itself might be tacky and dated, but it still does its job. We know something is coming, and we know how we’re supposed to feel about it too. I started to wonder if Rollin was actually some sort of genius, because he clearly had the magic ear and his scenes were balanced and executed with the expertise of someone who deserved a bigger budget to make his movie.
In a flashback sex scene between our ‘Dad’ zombie and his lady friend, which we later learn is the conception of Helena, all sound is omitted from the scene, except for some instrumental music. It’s a sex scene by all counts, complete with boobies and everything, but this scene is about love and companionship, and not about carnal instinct. The soundtrack is gentle and melodic, but every now and then we get a single-finger piano layer to it that reflects some sort of solitude. This makes the scene almost sad, because you know, just through that little twinkly piano bit, that this union cannot last. Someone will end up alone, and we later learn that through the death of both of them, that someone is their child.
Secondly, the set and the imagery and how it is shot as a whole gives this movie a few stylistic elements that are rarely seen in the zombie genre, and it works. This movie might not have had Hollywood money to back it, but the sets throw us right into the era because the right details were used in the design. We get glimpses of Rollin’s taste for gothic horror in close-up shots of things like gargoyle statues. The little details add depth and class, and really demonstrate Rollin’s appreciation of the horror genre as a whole.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s the major and minor themes running through this movie that make it amazing. Oh man, the themes. It’s no secret that porn actresses in the 70’s (and still today) didn’t receive the same respect, as human beings, as the general public would afford to anyone else. You only need to watch one documentary on the lives of pornstars to learn that after leaving the industry, they’re not likely to get employed in any other sector. After all, they’re just for sex, right? At the time this film was made, women in general still did not have equal rights. Today, there is still a debate about whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman to breast-feed in public, because apparently breasts are for the enjoyment of others and a mother has no right to suppose she can use them for non-sexual purposes.
Not only is Zombie Lake a deliberately feminist movie, but as it was made in ’81, it was damn well ahead of its time too. The porn-like settings when the women are naked are merely a veil to peer through, should we want to look hard. Much like the porn actresses that Rollin worked with in the 70’s, the women in this film are only valuable so long as they are clothed. They are only people, so long as they are serving the village men in other ways whilst they are dressed and acting ‘appropriately’.
Rollin also draws parallels between the dehumanization that comes with the sexualisation of women, and the dehumanization of the zombies themselves. There’s a chilling scene in which the bodies of the pre-zombie soldiers are tossed into the lake, which is unpleasant because this scene contains no sound whatsoever. These presumably drafted men are treated as less than human even before they become literal monsters, and this reflects the misogynistic viewpoint that women are disposable when they behave and/or dress (or undress) in inappropriate ways. We see it in the very next scene actually, in which a female sports team swim naked in the lake, only to be devoured within moments by the horde. The horde often emerge when men are merely standing near the lake, but in the case of this group of women, they emerge to hunt only after they have stripped off. Why? Because Rollin was showing us the ‘consequence’ that comes with female liberation. These women get naked and are immediately disposed of.
What Rollin made, with Zombie Lake, is a point. He’s holding a mirror to us and saying “women don’t destroy themselves with their sexuality – it’s YOU, the viewer, that does that with your judgment”. I genuinely believe that Rollin learned that message through watching the poor treatment of women in the porn industry, and he made a ‘mainstream’ movie that shows us what WE, as a society, do to them. After all, these women don’t judge, vilify and enjoy, but hypocritically banish, themselves from mainstream society – we do all of that for them.
Zombie Lake is no Cannibal Holocaust, in terms of punching us in the eyes with uncomfortable subject matter surrounding women and sex, but it is a fun flick with a message. Perhaps it’s more for an ‘analysis’ crowd than a ‘Netflix and Chill’ night.. no wait.. actually with all the boobs, it’s probably perfect for that. Regardless, I’m still giving this one a genuine thumbs up.