FEBRUARY 11, 2013
I must admit, I'm doing really poorly with my attempt to watch a whole bunch of Jean Rollin films for the site. Zombie Lake (French: Le lac des morts vivants) is only my 3rd, and no one seems to think it's really worth a look - some have even claimed its his worst. But Instant just added a bunch of 70s/80s horror to their lineup (wooo!) and it was one of the ones that caught my eye without even realizing it was a Rollin, so that was just a bonus. I promise, I'll watch a few more! One a week seems reasonable; it's getting harder to find discs worth watching at my Blockbuster, and my one disc plan for Netflix doesn't help me much when I forget to shuffle my queue and end up with a Seagal movie I added 3 years ago.
Anyway, yeah, it's not very good. But the funny thing is, Rollin apparently regretted signing on after he read the script, and I think the script isn't that bad at all compared to others of the era. As the story goes, a bunch of Nazi soldiers were killed in a town during WWII and their bodies were dumped in a lake unceremoniously, and now they are starting to come back to wreak havoc on the residents. Adding to the complications are a bunch of female basketball players who enjoy skinny-dipping, a pair of detectives who have been sent to investigate the first two killings (before they knew it was zombies, or "ghosts" depending on the scene), and a little girl whose mother is deceased and whose father is - wait for it - one of those zombies!
No, the production is what does the movie in, as almost nothing about it can be considered impressive (unless you count the nudity, of which there is plenty). Rollin apparently stepped in for Jess Franco with only two weeks to prepare, so I guess we're not supposed to blame him, but come on! Two weeks wasn't enough time to secure a better makeup artist so that the green face paint for the zombies wasn't clearly flaking off during the watery scenes? And even if that wasn't so botched, there'd still be the minor issue of the fact that their necks and hands are still flesh colored, rendering them among the cheapest/worst zombies I've ever seen on-screen. They don't move very well either; some do OK but most of the "actors" playing the undead just do a Frankenstein sort of lumber that often gives the impression that they're marionettes being jerked around by an impatient puppet master. By design the zombies all sort of look alike because they all had their uniforms/helmets on when they died (though there's one distinguished bald one near the end), so I can't fault them much for the fact that none of them really stick out, but the makeup team should have used this as an excuse to try different things with the facial appliances.
And you might think that the zombies suck because they spent all their money on gore gags, locations, etc, but you only need to watch any five minute chunk of the movie to know that's not the case. Maybe some of the gore has been edited (IMDb reports longer cuts, though I was unable to find anything regarding uncensored violence), but the zombies certainly aren't into taking HUGE bites - we see plenty of aftermath corpses and can tell that they haven't done much more damage than a common vampire (meaning: they bite the neck and move on), and in turn the humans are satisfied with just indiscriminately gunning the damn things down with their rifles and such. A zombie film - ESPECIALLY one from this era - needs to deliver one truly great way to kill a zombie and one shocking/memorable human kill, but this offers neither.
Instead, it offers many shots of zombies that are supposedly in a lake, but you can see the walls of the swimming pool in the background every single time. Hell, at one point you even see a maintenance door or something on the side of the frame, so they clearly weren't even trying (crew members in mirrors and such is a pretty common sight too). The village that the movie takes place in looks interesting enough, but there's a lack of clear geography that lessens the impact of the big zombie scenes in the third act, and the random editing also keeps tension at bay. At one point a zombie bursts into the tavern (which causes the guy by the door to quickly get up and run past the zombie into a back room, totally out of habit like this was something he was used to) and begins knocking over furniture and menacing the customers, and then Rollin inexplicably cuts to a naked girl taking a bath, where she is attacked a few moments later.
The dubbing is also atrocious, particularly for the mayor. His voice doesn't match the actor's look at all, and it's made more frustrating by the worse-than-usual lip syncing - you see a guy whose lips have stopped moving and hear a voice that clearly isn't his still finishing the thought. Apparently the DVD has the original French track, but no subtitles for it, so unless you know French I guess this is the best you can get in Region 1. A pity, because it makes the film's most intriguing aspect - the relationship between a zombie and his still human daughter - completely laughable. Her dialogue's not great to begin with, but it probably at least sounded "good enough" in the native French, and would allow the audience to concentrate on this rather interesting idea, that a zombie would be able to recognize his daughter and even kind of protect her at one point. Sure, it goes against Romero rules, but so what? After hundreds of zombie movies I'll take any twist to the formula as long as they commit to it. Luckily for Rollin and co., a big chunk of the 3rd act is dialogue-free, so you're free from the Z-grade dubbing for a while.
If you're a Nazi zombie enthusiast, then this is a must-see - as bad as it is, there's something undeniably charming about the whole thing, and even with my limited intake I can tell that this is definitely a departure for Rollin (who used a pseudonym, though he appears in the movie using his real name), so there's probably some curiosity value there too. But if you want real zombie action or even a competent movie, then you should definitely steer clear - the nudity can only make up for so much.
What say you?