La morte vivante
The Living Dead Girl is a curious and unusually accessible entry into the filmography of the French master of the surrealist macabre Jean Rollin. In comparison to prior outings this is something of a bloodbath, and the camera is strangely unflinching in its presentation of the red stuff. It would seem that wider trends within the horror genre had finally forced Rollin in this direction, but fortunately his is able to accommodate this without compromising his strange, ethereal, poetic and arty vision. This time Rollin and his co-writer Jacues Raif conflate the mythologies of the vampire and the zombie to create a haunting piece which still retains a freshness, and would certainly have seemed refreshing in 1982. Instead of the grey faced automatons of Romero, or the rotting cadavers of Fulci here we have the stately vision of Francoise Blanchard as the eponymous reanimated corpse. Her dependence and hunger for blood creates a shattering moral dilemma for this corpse - because as she begins to slowly reclaim the sensations, emotions, and pleasures of life her slavery to blood begins to repulse her. Her addiction is all consuming and few horror films articulate with such poetry and despair the self-revulsion of an addict.
The manner in which Catherine Valmont (Blanchard) is reanimated, is unfortunately, one of the weaker aspects of the screenplay. She is resurrected due to the accidental spillage of an unknown toxic chemical, which is being dumped in her family vault. In amidst the eye gouging and gore which herald Valmont’s reawakening it is easy to forget that the film opens with a dangerous disregard for the environment that borders on insane. This indifference to the local ecology offers a resonant echo to the use of experimental pesticides that create a countryside of zombies in Rollin’s masterpiece The Grapes of Death (1978). This is indicative of an increasing social/political commitment in Rollin’s cinema that is so easily overlooked amid the images of lesbianism, vampirism, S&M and other sundry exploitation devices that dominate his films. In this film his surreal outlook goes hand in hand with weightier social concerns best represented by a local populace only one level above catatonia.
The relationship between the two central characters is a complex one. It ends in a naturally bloody and inscrutable fashion, with one of the most troubling freeze frame endings in horror cinema history. Despite her love of Helene, Catherine’s hunger is ultimately too strong. This is a tale of love, death, and alienation - both socially and emotionally. Motivations remain frustratingly unclear - a narrative strategy borrowed from art cinema that Rollin used throughout his career. In a film like this, with its overtures of surreal and fragmented imagery, its not enough to question a characters motives and leave it at that. People do incredibly dumb things in Rollin movies, but we know somewhere there is a deep seated reason for it, the beauty of Rollin’s important films is that he doesn’t allow us an easy explanation (if indeed there is one). For example does Helene facilitate and commit acts of murder on Catherine’s behalf out of loyalty to their childhood bond? Or does her need go deeper? The film does slide perilously close to high melodrama at times - especially when Catherine becomes aware of her condition. But the melodrama is usually contained by the graphic bloodletting that follows. Valmont seriously needs to get her fingernails cut! Rollin also gets a great deal of atmospheric mileage from a wonderfully eerie castle setting. The cinematography by Max Monteillet makes excellent use of the vaults, corridors, and winding staircases of this baronial space. Oddly this is a very bright horror film with many daylight scenes that betray attempts create lasting suspense. If judged by modern horror standards this is easily one of Rollin’s most accessible and enjoyable of horror movies, but there is still much of value to those who like the artier aspects of his work.
© Shaun Anderson 2010