French art house director Jean Rollin can be something of an acquired taste. His fantasy horror films are often chock full of nubile young women in various states of undress, but just as often slow moving, confusing and obscure. Nevertheless, he has influenced a lot of more mainstream filmmakers, such as Rob Zombie (if he can be described as mainstream), who named a song after the film under review today, The Living Dead Girl
The Living Dead Girl itself is a little hard to classify. As the title implies, it's a story of a young woman who returns from the dead, but sort of as a hybrid between a vampire and a zombie. Catherine (Francoise Blanchard) died young, but is revived after a few years when some clumsy chemical plant workers accidentally spill some nasty barrels they are trying to secrete in her crypt. The fumes from the chemicals wash over Catherine, and she awakes, immediately killing the workmen and drinking their blood. In a daze, she stumbles upstairs into her ancestral home, which is now on the market for sale. On a whim, her close childhood friend Helene (Marina Pierro) calls the house. Catherine answers, but is unable to speak, and only opens the music box they listened to as children.
Disturbed by this, Helene rushes to her friend's former home, only to discover Catherine alive (sort of), and having killed the realtor and her boyfriend, who came to the opulent chateau for a romantic tryst. Without wasting a minute, Helene tells Catherine that she has to clean up, and they'll dispose of the bodies and make a run for it. Catherine resists leaving, feeling more comfortable in the home she grew up in. Interspersed with all of this is the story of an American couple, Greg and Barbara (Mike Marshall and Carina Barone). They fancy themselves photographers, and Barbara, who snapped a picture of Catherine by chance, is convinced that she has evidence of the walking dead among the living.
As this film is essentially a tragedy, along with being a horror movie and a Sapphic (though platonic) love story, things don't exactly end well. And even though it moves at what one might charitably describe as a leisurely pace, it has a fairly compelling story, decent performances, fun effects, and, of course, attractive nude women splattered with blood, which is generally a plus for genre fans, or at least Jean Rollin fans. The relationship between Helene and Catherine is genuine, heartfelt, and at times even moving. It meditates on ideas about friendship, duty, debt, honor, love and the nature of evil, with subtlety and compassion. That's not to say that this is a masterpiece of cinema, because it's not. But it is a better than decent attempt at depth in a genre that generally doesn't care about it, on a film with a miniscule budget by most standards. As such, The Living Dead Girl is, along with perhaps The Grapes of Death, one of Rollin's most accessible films, and a good starting point for Rollin beginners who want to get an idea of what he's all about.
Let's be clear, Jean Rollin is not an overlooked master of cinema. He's a workmanlike, very idiosyncratic director who made films he thought were interesting without too much regard for what would play commercially or even whether they fit into standard film conventions. He had a few flashes of genius, but they were few and far between, and often severely hampered by extremely low budgets and short shooting schedules. Even so, he has a very dedicated fan base who love his work, and is definitely worth a look by serious students of film, especially of the horror genre, extra especially for those interested in the European horror renaissance of the 1960s and onward. Redemption has done a very good job in the Blu-ray presentation of The Living Dead Girl, and Rollin devotees will definitely want to seek it out. Recommended.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good. Of course, this is a thirty year old movie shot on film, so there are plenty of scratches and lens dirt to be seen, but these are relatively minor and light, and don't appreciably detract from the viewing experience. The colors are rich and warm, and very bright, especially the deep red of the copious splattered blood. The Living Dead Girl here probably looks as good as it possibly can.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, in French mostly, though there are a few bits of spoken English dialogue. It sounds pretty good, though there is some mild hiss and pop at times, but it is light enough to be ignorable. The dialogue is generally easily audible, and English subtitles are included. No alternate language track, though.
There are quite a few extras included with the disc. They are:
Introduction by Jean Rollin
Running at just 1:22, Rollin discusses the film, and its unaccustomed (for him) gore.
Short features are included, involving comments by actor Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, a discussion of the American version of the film, the music of Philippe D'Aram (which gets very technical, for you music geeks), and an homage to the now deceased special effects wizard Benoit Lestang. Lestang was still in high school, and had no prior experience, when he was hired by Rollin to do the effects for the film (which range from so-so, to quite good). He later went on to work at quite high levels in the industry, on films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Martyrs.
Jean Rollin at Fantasia
At over thirty minutes, this is probably the most substantive extra, and it covers Rollins visit to Canadian film fest Fantasia in 2007. He speaks at length about his career, with a lot of fascinating anecdotes. This is quite interesting, despite the amateurish nature of how it was filmed.
A short segment of an interview discussing The Living Dead Girl. The audio is sub-optimal, but Rollin himself is quite engaging.
Jean Rollin Trailers
Trailers are included for The Living Dead Girl, The Rape of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire, The Iron Rose, The Demoniacs, Lips of Blood, Fascination and Two Orphan Vampires.
This is a twelve page booklet, written by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, discussing The Living Dead Girl and Two Orphan Vampires, also released on Blu-ray by Redemption. It's quite informative and thoughtful, and provides some background and context for the two films.
Jean Rollin is not for all tastes, and neither is The Living Dead Girl, but it is a fascinating peak into what was going on in European horror during the late seventies and early eighties. It's a film with subtlety and nuance, and the trademark Rollin nudity, that somehow doesn't come across as salacious, but rather poignant and thoughtful. If you've ever been curious about Rollin, check it out, even if it's just to cross him off of your list.