When discussing the works of Shakespeare – and I think it’s important to begin with Shakespeare when discussing Zombie Lake (1981) – we classify the plays as comedies, histories, and tragedies, to make better sense of their structure and to identify commonalities and irregularities. Then there are the “problem plays”: those which do not fit neatly into any scholarly classification. Filmmaker Jean Rollin is a problem play. Ostensibly he is a horror director whose specialty was the vampire film, and whose key works are in the 1970’s, though he was directing up until his death in 2010. I’ve reviewed many of his best films on this site already, and I have great admiration for the poetry and haunting images found in his films, my particular favorites being Shiver of the Vampires (1971) and Lips of Blood (1975); the former works as a dark, erotic, and psychedelic fairy tale, and the latter calls to mind the dream-cinema of David Lynch. But between his heights were plummeting lows. Though he can be aligned with the tradition of French fantastique cinema and literature, and in his films paid tribute to old serials and the erotic fantasy art found in French comics, his work was not understood by critics; and in order to maintain a career behind the camera, he agreed to direct hardcore pornography between his personal projects. And even those personal projects would be increasingly compromised, as his preferred style of erotica bowed to the pressures of the grindhouse circuit, and longer and more explicit sex scenes were inserted into his films. Finally one must come to grips with the roughshod nature of so much of his work. Even in his best films there is variable acting, shoddy (or simply absent) FX, occasionally shaky camerawork and glaring flubs that a second or third take could have easily remedied. So how does one address a problem play like Jean Rollin? He is certainly unclassifiable, and for those who watch and rewatch his films, the flaws are part of the charm, like Dark Shadows fans acknowledging that occasionally the set will wobble or an actor will forget a line. And yet it seems even most Rollin fans have a hard time with Zombie Lake. So did Rollin, who treated it like he did his pornography: with a pseudonym.
The film is credited to “J.A. Laser,” though the name “Jean Rollin” does appear in the credits as part of the cast. This says something. It says that he was more proud of his one-minute cameo as a German policeman getting hickeys from two soggy zombies than he was the entire ninety minutes of this rather hopeless film. Originally slated to direct was Jesús “Jess” Franco, the obscenely prolific Spanish director who, like Rollin, moved between genre films and porn to make his living. Eurocine, the distributor, had around 1980 brought in Rollin to add zombie scenes to Franco’s old quickie A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), creating a new, bastardized edit to exploit the Dawn of the Dead craze, and Zombie Lake would be a tired Romero rip-off through and through. Rollin is said to have regretted his decision to take over for Franco as soon as he read the script, but then, zombies were never really his thing. Zombies, after all, are typically lumbering and decomposing; he preferred female vampires in diaphanous nightgowns holding candelabras. The script’s monsters were all male, Nazi soldiers who take revenge upon the German villagers who murdered them and threw their bodies in a lake (“The Lake of the Ghosts”); a decade later they rise from the murk for their revenge. Still, there would be plenty of opportunity for naked female flesh. For some reason women love to skinny-dip in this particular lake. Which brings us to another popular film that Zombie Lake copies: Jaws. Rollin rather joylessly mimics Spielberg’s underwater shots of helpless legs treading water, only in this case it becomes an artless study of female genitalia before the zombies strike.
I once read a post by a Rollin fan claiming that you could freeze-frame one of his films at any moment and discover a beautiful image. That is certainly not the case with Zombie Lake. One gets the sense that Rollin’s attitude was simply, “Let’s get this over with,” locked into the same mindset as his hardcore films. It is mercenary exploitation, with insipid dialogue and sex & violence dispensed at regular intervals (though there really isn’t much in the way of gore, as if the budget couldn’t accommodate). The only sign that a pulse beats behind the heart of this machine is an amusing subplot involving the young daughter of one of the murdered Nazis, reconnecting with her father when his bright-green corpse strolls into her room. Rollin plays these scenes with maximum absurdity, and for once I could sense that he’s in on the joke: one telling moment is that late in the film the girl greets her father by holding her arms straight out in the universal zombie greeting, to turn this into a warm embrace (he simply stares forward vacantly). Satisfyingly, it is the daughter who ultimately destroys the zombies by luring them into a cottage with a tasty bucket of blood, so that the villagers can burn the place down.
But that’s not enough to redeem Zombie Lake, which is a pretty terrible film by any standard. Rollin may not have signed his name to the film, but surely he could have taken this assignment and turned it into something a bit more interesting and against-the-grain. If you enjoy the film, it’s not in spite of but because of its flaws: the jaw-dropping shamelessness of its sexploitation elements (as soon as a girl’s volleyball team arrives at the lake, they toss the ball about for a few seconds and then strip naked); the incompetent staging of its WWII flashbacks (we hear planes roaring overhead and dropping bombs, but we see little more than a woman staring up at the sky and screaming); the horrendous acting (note that even when the zombies are rising from the lake, one at the far left is giving a completely different style of performance – see the screenshot at the beginning of this review). Even the underwater scenes in the lake are clearly filmed in a swimming pool; he scarcely attempts to hide the fact. So you can love Jean Rollin, and I still do. But never forget that for every Fascination (1979), there’s a Zombie Lake – and that’s a very interesting problem.
Zombie Lake is available in Netflix instant streaming in its English-dubbed version. Kino, as part of their Redemption line of releases, will be issuing a remastered Blu-Ray edition on February 26.