The Living Dead Girl
Original Title: La Morte Vivante
Directed by: Jean Rollin
Horror / Drama, 86min
Distributed by: Njuta Films / Redemption
If you think that zombie movies have to be dark, brooding and saturated with despair, then think again. The last few years’ stuff has been happening to the zombie genre that has been hailed as re-inventive, innovative and groundbreaking. George A. Romero has slowly been infusing a consciousness in the minds of his zombies since Night of the Living Dead 1968, and peaking with Survival of the Dead 2009. Recently Marc Price's independent flick Colin 2008 gave the zombie a modus operandi, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead 2004 ended with zombie and man living together in perfect harmony.
But long before the crusty shufflers brought some quasi raison d’être to the scene... even further back, in the eighties, when Italian gut-munchers where on their last legs and the Americans started to bring goofiness to the zombie genre, there was one director who made a movie about a conscious zombie that even had the ability to feel love, grief and remorse, Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl!
Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is a pretty damned fascinating zombie movie. A zombie movie not a vampire movie like we are used to associating Jean Rollin with, but a zombie film – even if Catherine Valmont does rise from a coffin in a crypt and drinks blood… Rollin directed a couple of movies that could be categorised as films within the zombie genre – and what fascinates me with two of his best entries, Les Raisins de la mort (Grapes of Death) 1978, and The Living Dead Girl - is that he never states that we are dealing with zombies, but let’s us with our programmed minds and strong desires to pigeon hole everything determine that it is a zombie movie. A zombie movie where strong emotions are at play and therefore create one of the most romantic and poetic zombie flicks ever made.
Starting off with a pretty dorky opening where three guys arrive at a chateau to dump toxic waste in the basement – all because the bureaucrats have decided that toxic waste has to be confined – the movie takes a sudden twist into the dark when two of the workmen after disposing of the vats of toxic waste decide to take on a spot of grave robbery at the same time… Yes in the same crypt under the chateau lies the body of Mrs Valmont and her daughter Catherine [Françoise Blanchard – also from Rollin’s Les Trottoirs de Bangkok (Sidewalks of Bangkok) 1984]. A few seconds after lifting a hefty amount of jewellery from the corpses, a tremor shakes the landscape and causes the barrels of toxic waste to spill out on the ground. A small rivulet of green ooze runs towards the casket of Catherine and before you know it she pop’s open her hands out of the coffin and rams her sharp pointy digits into the throat of one of the men as if her fingers where a pair of scissors. He runs away with blood pouring from the holes that once held his eyes. The second man has fallen to the ground during the tremor and when the runnel of oozing chemicals pass by his face it dissolves into a smoky bloody mess, and as the third worker walks into the well lit crypt to see where his mates got to, Catherine slinks in from behind and rams those sharp claws into his neck sending a fountain of blood down the front of her white burial gown. It is an understatement to say that this opening sequence is by far the most violent and vicious of all Jean Rollin’s movies and it sets an auspicious tone that soon will contrast hard against the stronger emotions to be unravelled.
The subplot and secondary cast is set in motion when we are introduced to Greg [Mike Marshall] and Barbara [Carina Barone] who are vacationing in the area. She’s a failed actress trying to create an alternative career and is diddling around with photography when she spots a mystic figure strolling the landscape. She cracks off a few shots of the woman and returns to Greg, puzzled by the female figure she just took photographs of. This will make up a smaller part of the common Rollin theme of “the search” as Barbara will become obsessed with finding out who the strange woman is, and follow that trail into damnation.
With the subplot safely activated, the main narrative kicks in. Catherine returns to Château Valmont and moves through the house whilst a young real estate agent shows two elderly Americans around the place who are interested in buying a French castle. They old man is Sam Selsky, producer of Rollin’s stunning La rose de fer (Rose of Iron) 1973 in a rare cameo and the scene reminds me of the ending to José Rámon Larraz Vampyres 1974, where two Americans are interested in buying Oakley Court in England. It may be a possible statement on the economics of the time. As the old couple leave, the real estate agent makes plans to meet up with her boyfriend and spend the night in Château Valmont before she taking off too. The living dead Catherine starts to recognize items and signifiers in the château and this induces a series of flashbacks that are extremely important within the Rollin universe, the two little girls.
As you may recall from my previous pieces on Jean Rollin’s cinema, the two little girls, sometimes twins, sometimes-just friends, reoccur in most of his work, and they frequently represent the important lost childhood themes that are found in his films. In Perdues dans New York (Lost in New York) 1989 he goes as far as having the two girls wander through important pats of his back catalogue though dialogue which creates a fantastic red line through the works that phenomenally ties them all together. I don’t think that there ever has been another director to give you a rush of insight that spans through twenty odd years and forty something movies. That is something unique to the masterful Jean Rollin.
In The Living Dead Girl the case is the same – the two little girls are the young Catherine and her best friend Hélène seen through flashbacks as they promise a to love each other to the end of time and after becoming blood sisters through a naïve bloodletting ritual, swear to follow whoever goes first into death. There’s also a music box, which figures in the flashback – a gift from Hélène to Catherine – that will play an important part in the movie and almost acts as the inciting incident that makes the movie happen. Whilst Catherine now back in real time painfully tries to figure out what has happened to her and is emotionally tormented by all the mementos of a time past, the phone rings, Catherine more or less automaton knocks the receiver over and it’s Hélène [played as an adult by the lush Marina Pierro] calling. Having just returned from a journey abroad and not hearing of Catherine’s passing until she came home, she calls only to hear that music box playing on the other side of the line. It’s a sound she reads as a sign that Catherine isn’t dead at all, but still very much alive.
This is where the superb platonic love story shifts into gear; Hélène arrives just after Catherine has killed the real-estate agent and her lover Louis who have returned to the chateau for some nocturnal enjoyment. Hélène walks in on the bloodbath and is both shocked at what she sees and relieved that Catherine is alive. She washes Catherine, disposes of the bodies and even let’s her settle her bloodlust in a scene symbolically reminiscent but much more erotic than that childhood ritual. The love story is driven by that strong Rollin theme - loss and the search for it. Hélène thought she had lost Catherine and certainly she did in adult life. But now reunited after Catherine’s death, Hélène won’t let go and will stop at nothing to keep Catherine in the realm of the living, pulling her back to life with her love and human sacrifices that she brings to the château for Catherine.
Barbara continues her search and is the main threat to the two women, as she also knows that Catherine is dead – which is what the whole village told her as she asked around with the photograph she took earlier. Keep an eye open for Rollin’s cameo as a street vendor during this part. But Barbara isn’t only the antagonist of the piece as she also works as a catalyst for Catherine’s insight and realisation that she’s dead. An insight that generates a great paradox as with the realisation that she is dead, Catherine looses all lust to live. Barbara wouldn’t be much of an antagonist without taking some action to disrupt the micro cosmos that Hélène has created with Catherine, and this is exactly what she does, but more along the line of her own search more than to actually destroy Hélène and Catherine’s relationship – although her interference costs her dearly as Hélène won’t loose Catherine a second time.
With the antagonistic forces put out of play it would be easy to let the two women get on with their relationship, but as that seed of despair has been planted in Catherine and she has no longer a lust to live… reluctant to accept Hélène’s sacrifices and most likely unaware of the murder’s Hélène has committed to protect their necrophillic love affair – yeah necrophilia isn’t about shagging corpses, it’s about being aroused by the presence of death, which Hélène obviously is. Catherine tries to take her own life, and die a second time, but still refusing to let go and give in to loss; Hélène saves her and reminds Catherine of their childhood oath one last time. It’s a heartbreaking moment and the movie comes to the only climax that it really could come to. A dark and ironic ending where justice is served, the pact is honoured and Rollin’s themes of loss makes one of it’s most profound impacts ever.
The Living Dead Girl is in many ways a rather unique entry into Rollin’s horror catalogue – gone are the iconic windy beaches of Dieppe, gone are the luscious vampire maidens, gone are the castle ruins and moonlit rendezvous. But this does not mean that he has cast his most important themes aside, merely the settings and locations. The Living Dead Girl is very much a part of the Rollin universe. The themes are there and the two young girls. The main question is really what is it in that misplaced childhood that he is searching for in all these movies? I hope to find an answer at some point in time, because it's been the modus operandi for the majority of his films.
The collaboration between Jean Rollin and Françoise Blanchard is extraordinary and she gives Rollin one of the best on screen performances ever seen in one of his films. Blanchard plays the part just right, really bringing all those delicate emotions to the character. It could have all to easy gone over board and become a parody as it sometimes does in low budget cinema, but Blanchard and Rollin hit the mark perfectly and Blanchard delivers an amazing performance… But also Marina Pierro – from several Walerian Borowczyk films, among them the splendid Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) 1981 - also gives a phenomenal performance, almost as an anti thesis to Blanchard at times. Perhaps the fact that Rollin was given the luxury to actually go through scenes in rehearsals and take time on set to block obviously shows what a talented director he was when he was allowed to work under the right circumstances.
The movie also features a stunning score by Philipe D’Aram that definitely talks the same volatile language as the wonderfully composed set pieces do. It moves through the same emotions as the characters and reflects the mood perfectly.
Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is a damned fine example of his rich, moody, atmospherically and emotionally potent cinema outside the frequented Vampire niche that he sternly etched out for him self during the seventies. It's something not to be missed!
For more on Jean Rollin and related news, take time to visit Jeremy Richey's The Jean Rollin Experience. It's a gem of the net.
Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. French Dialogue, optional Danish, Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian Subtitles.
A slideshow of stills, Original Trailer and trailers for other Jean Rollin movies and a selection of other titles released by Njuta Films.