Monday, May 12, 2008

The Living Dead Girl (1982)

Though I haven’t delved too deeply into Jean Rollin’s filmography, I have found the films of his I have seen to be quite poetic and darkly romantic. The Iron Rose was the first film of his I saw, and it entranced me with its gothic feel and dark poetry. After that, I eagerly sought out his other work, which led me to view The Grapes of Death, a film I found to be rather disappointing.

However, I recently viewed Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (aka La Morte Vivante), which came highly recommended, and this film did not disappoint. Sticking to a more straightforward storyline and somewhat leaving his slow and hypnotizing filmmaking behind, Rollin brings us a film filled with gore, nudity and an enthralling Living Dead Girl.

The film opens with a couple of workers dumping barrels filled with toxic waste into an old crypt under a castle in the French countryside. While they are down there, they decide to do a little grave robbing as well. As they are prying open the coffin lids of two coffins, an earthquake causes the toxic chemicals to spill everywhere. While one grave robber gets killed by the stuff, another gets his eyes clawed out by the resurrected Catherine Valmont (Francoise Blanchard), who looks as fresh and pretty as the day she died two years ago!

She makes her way back to her castle, though her family is also dead and the place has been put on the market. She kills anyone that gets in her way, including a realtor and her boyfriend who come to the empty castle for some hanky-panky.

When her childhood friend and blood sister Helene (Marina Pierro) discovers Catherine is still alive, she rushes to her aid and vows to never leave her, helping her to kill people when Catherine craves their blood. Even while Helene tries to find a semblance of normality for the two of them, Catherine truly realizes what she is and begins lamenting her current undead condition.

Catherine’s secret becomes further threatened when an American actress photographs her and becomes intent on uncovering her identity.

Living Dead Girl is probably Jean Rollin’s most commercial and accessible film. His signature dream-like atmosphere is more muted in the film (though still present) and the plot moves along rather briskly for a Rollin film. The gore and nudity are also copious and occur often, as do the lesbian undertones (which are present in many of Rollin’s vampire films) between Helene and Catherine.

Catherine’s weapon of choice were her long, curved nails, with which she slashed and stabbed through many victims. Blood splattered, sprayed and streamed over the screen throughout the film. There’s plenty of violence, from a girl getting her stomach repeatedly slashed open to a man on fire. The most impressive gore sequence came towards the end, when someone’s throat is literally ripped out, and it was so prolonged that it made me squirm a little in my seat! There was also plenty of flesh exposed on which to splatter said blood. Gorehounds will delight in many of the blood-letting scenes!

Francoise Blanchard is amazing as Catherine Valmont. Her innocent blue eyes and angelic blond hair contrast nicely with the chaos that surrounds her. She is very much the victim as opposed to the monster in this film, and you really feel for her predicament. Marina Pierro also does a marvelous job as Helene, who just can’t seem to come to grips with what Catherine really is. Her steely resolve to protect her friend and the love she shows toward Catherine are very admirable traits, though near the end you wish she would just come to understand what Catherine is going through. The rest of the acting is respectable, even with the subplot involving the actress stumbling across Catherine’s secret.

Surprisingly, the subplot doesn’t feel unnecessary, but instead adds a bit more depth and drama to the story, written by Rollin and Jacques Ralf. As for the pacing, it moved at a quick clip, something that can’t be said for all of Rollin’s films. There are plot holes (including the freshness of Catherine’s corpse!), but they are easy to overlook when the film is viewed as a whole. I enjoyed how the story never took a decidedly “zombie” or “vampire” stance with Catherine’s resurrection, but straddled the two myths. Catherine is never named as a “zombie” or a “vampire,” but is merely “undead” and marries aspects from both. She drinks blood like a vampire but also stumbles around like a mindless zombie most of the film. In the end, the character works, which is all that really matters. The rest of the story, including Catherine’s mounting angst and Helene’s burgeoning frustration, works nicely with the ensuing chaos and catastrophe of Catherine’s “condition.”

The cinematography, done by Max Monteillet, was also stunning and the vistas used in the film were gorgeous. The Valmont’s castle was outfitted for a king and the surrounding fields and town were vibrant. The leads were beautiful as well, which completed the film’s rich palette. Visually speaking, each scene has something to grab your eye.

If you are looking to explore Jean Rollin’s work, Living Dead Girl is the most accessible place to start. Its straightforward story moves at a brisk pace, the acting is excellent, the gore is out of this world and the leads are beautiful (and you’ll get to see plenty of them throughout the film if you catch my drift). The film follows some genre guidelines (toxic spill awakens the dead) but has a unique spin on the consequences. This Living Dead Girl is no brainless zombie intent only on brains, she is a thinking, rationale being with a strong sense of right and wrong who just happens to be back from the dead…and is a very messy blood-feaster.

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