Zombies are often utilised by filmmakers who want to instill empathy towards the monster that represents the physical threat in their film. They are the supernatural’s closest relative to human beings and whilst they may very well be an empty vessel taken over by systematic bloodlust, we see them from up high as they stumble round in the uncanny valley, like us but not like us at all. Zombies can be terrifying and brutally efficient in their simplicity but utilised incorrectly and they become a sort of punch-line, as we unfortunately find out in Jean Rollin’s B-movie starter kit, 1981’s Zombie Lake.
Released as a French-Spanish co-production, Zombie Lake makes the intriguing yet foolhardy choice to take place within a small provincial French village during 1955, ten years after the end of the First World War. After a spate of brutal killings occur in the vicinity of the titular and aptly named local “Lake of the Damned”, a newspaper reporter arrives in order to uncover the story, unaware that the local inhabitants harbour a morbid secret that has come back to haunt them. As the bloodthirsty history of the lake begins to unravel, the killings become more frequent and more gruesome, eventually culminating in all out war between French villagers and Nazi zombies.
Before delving into the many reasons as to why Zombie Lake is a tone-deaf, unsatisfying and generally low-effort piece of horror filmmaking, it should be noted that Black House films have done a remarkable restoration job on what is essentially an unremarkable film. The opening shots are so crisp, clean and colourful that you almost don’t notice the full-frontal nudity that grinds the film to a halt in the first two minutes. Everything pops out of the frame in a very late seventies European art-house manner so whilst the content is unflattering, the visuals themselves are actually quite striking.
Despite this, Zombie Lake still feels like a bad live-action episode of Scooby Doo for adults. The nondescript characters that populate the film exist only as walking cadavers for any number of forgettable killings and to call some of the scenes here filler would be a compliment. Take the mid-movie centerpiece, if you will, which situates a girl’s volleyball team in the worst possible place they could be. As they begin to undress and cavort in the deadly lake and the sex-comedy soundtrack takes hold of your soul, a certain uneasiness begins to settle in but not in the way Rollin’s intended. There is a fine line between titillation and exploitation; when straddled correctly, sleaziness gives way to eroticism so it is unfortunate that Zombie Lake struggles to find its balance, to say the least.
One quite intriguing theme (it might actually be the only theme…) running throughout the film is that of the aforementioned empathy. In its own scandalous way the focus on empathy is quite a bold stroke for a film whose primary currency is unabashed nudity so when we are asked first to sympathise with a Nazi soldier who has fallen in love with one of the villagers it can be quite a tonal shift. This pales in comparison, however, when the undead Nazi returns from the lake in order to forge a relationship with his daughter, the offspring of his wartime tryst. This may be a bizarre move that doesn’t pay off but in a movie that is void of anything else of substance, it stands out like a sore, rotting thumb.
Zombie Lake will be released on Blu-Ray by Screenbound through their Black House label on the 20th March.