Time for some Zombies, Art house style. 1982’s French film, “La Morte Vivante” more infamously known by it’s English language title, “The Living Dead Girl”, by prolific French director Jean Rollin. Rollin, known more for his erotic series of Art-house style vampire films, did visit the Zombie genre at least this once to deliver us a memorable tale fit for the genre. I’ve had this one on DVD for a while, but it’s been a few years since I watched it, so what better excuse than our Halloween Zombie Fest to give it another look?
Our Synopsis goes like this: “Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard), recently deceased, is resurrected when a strange chemical substance is accidentally spilled into her tomb. Confused and nearly catatonic, she tries to track down her past life and finds her way back to her family chateau, now inhabited only by her mourning childhood friend and lover Helené (Marina Pierro). The two are reunited, but when it turns out that Catherine can only survive by drinking blood, Helené desperately tries to help her by supplying human victims to satisfy her unquenchable need. But when Catherine slowly regains her awareness and becomes disgusted by her own lust for blood, things are bound to go terribly… horribly…. wrong.”
Rollin always managed to invest his films with a dreamlike sense of dark fairytale uniquely his own and “Living Dead Girl” is no exception. Given this… it’s no surprise that his zombie would be a beautiful young woman rather than a simple rotting cadaver….. even if our beauty is often covered in copious amounts of the gore such horror films need. So how does it all play out?
Let’s “Read On” and find out….
Our story gets it’s start as a trio of lazy workers at a chemical plant are taking the latest shipment of drums filled with God only know what sort of toxic sludge off to the place they’ve decided to hide them away. Wanna guess where? How about the old Valmont Family Crypt…. a big ol’ series of endless catacombs and vaults, that despite being supposedly abandoned, is illuminated by flaming torches….. (Yeah… yeah, I know, it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but that’s just all part of Rollin’s mythos…. all crypts need moody torchlight to set the proper ambiance… it’s a French thing, I guess.) Well… if a stupider place to choose exists, I guess these guys didn’t know about it. Hey…. and while they are at it, why not indulge in a little grave robbing? Seems the Valmont Matriarch who just died was buried with all her jewelry, and she certainly has no need for it now, right?
During this clumsy bit of plunder, an inconvenient earthquake shakes the catacombs overturning one of the drums who’s toxic fumes seep into the crypt and… surprisingly enough… awaken the beautiful Catherine (played by Françoise Blanchard) from her eternal slumber. (Why only Catherine and not her Mom is anybody’s guess…. and wait a minute…. Catherine sure looks pretty darn foxy for a 2 year old corpse…. Neko guesses there aren’t any ugly zombies in Jean Rollin’s mythos either….) Right off the bat she eliminates one of the robbers by poking out his eyes while the other is eaten alive by the toxic waste spill. Ouch!! One quick slash of her razor sharp fingernails and their buddy waiting at the van is toast too. Immediately she starts lapping up the blood like a crazed kitten at the milk bowl… revitalizing her enough to leave the catacombs to wander the countryside in a languid daze.
It’s during this interlude she gets seen by an American couple, Barbara (Carina Barone) and Greg (Mike Marshall), on a photographic vacation here in France. Betty snaps some pictures from a distance of Catherine, intrigued by her aura of eerie weirdness. Perhaps by instinct, Catherine finds her way back to her family chateau…. and despite the pretense of a Realtor and two perspective buyers, enters the strangely familiar surroundings unobserved making her way to her old room. There she finds a music box…. the gift of her best friend Helené. It triggers memories… hazy and unclear of her childhood… her friendship and innocently charming “Girl crush” with Helené and the oath they swore never to be parted, even by death itself. Moments later… the phone rings, as Helené (played by Marina Pierro) tries to catch the Realtor, but instead has her call answered by the mute Catherine and hears only the haunting strains of that same music box from all those years before.
Helené, haunted by her memories and the pain of having lost Catherine makes a hasty return to the chateau to find her there…. Mere moments after she has killed the Realtor and her lover who returned that evening for a secret tryst an now sits naked at the old piano playing scraps of half remembered tunes, her strange hunger temporarily sated. Not believing the possibility that Cathrine really has returned somehow from beyond the grave, Helené resolves to help her friend…. simply glad to be with her again no matter how horrible the circumstances or what she must do to keep Catherine by her side. Nothing… or no one….. will ever tear them apart again….
With the bodies neatly disposed of in the catacombs, Helené tries to awaken Catherine’s senses…. and manages to stir some measure of recognition from her, despite her continued inability to communicate. It doesn’t take long for Catherine’s peculiar gruesome dietary needs to become horribly apparent…. and when the blood of doves fails to serve, she then offers her own blood to make her friend well. But this can be only a temporary solution…..
Nearby, in the village, Barbara is intrigued by the photo of Catherine and eager to find out who she is…. only to be told by everyone that “Catherine Valmont is dead and buried years ago.” She wont let it go, despite Greg’s insistence she do so…. and becomes obsessed with finding her again. She spends the rest of the film trying to do just that. Naturally… we know that’s gonna cost her. Big time.
Back at the chateau, Helené, desperate not to lose her friend to death again, takes the path of murder to find the blood she needs to thrive and improve. Her first victim, an innocent woman traveler lured to the castle provides just enough sustenance for Catherine to regain most of her mind again…. only to realize the evil monster she has become.
Horrified… she begs Helené to end her existence, but her friend cannot… will not.. let her go.
Even Barbara’s poking around only convinces her that it would be best for them both to go away… far away.. staying together until Catherine can finally be whole and fully alive again. But this cannot be…. Catherine is too attached to the familiar places of her life, and death, to ever leave them, a choice which puts her on a collision course with ultimate destruction.
Nearly caught by Helené, Barbara escapes back to town and tries to convince Greg that Catherine is some sort of prisoner…. that she needs their help, but he resists believing her absurd story. At a village festival that evening, Barbara see Helené luring away a woman, a new victim for her Catherine, and they follow her back to the castle only to have Helené brutally kill them both to protect her friend and their secret. (So much for the good ol’ Scooby-Doo approach….) But Catherine cannot abide the terror of her existence anymore… she frees the woman and tries to destroy herself by drowning only to discover it is impossible for her to die again. Knowing what must ultimately happen when Catherine’s hunger cannot be sated, Helené, unwilling to be parted from her, voluntarily becomes her final victim, and the film ends with a bloody Catherine howling in anguish over the ravaged body of her lover and friend.
This one is a beautiful film…. it’s simultaneously gentle and tender in it’s pacing, lyrically tragic in it’s simple story, while hiding moments of bloody gore to rival any other horror film of the time. Rollin certainly had a way with his films of making them seem like fantastical places almost beyond the real world, populated by images both gorgeous and subtle as well as violently horrible and “The Living Dead Girl” is no exception. Outside of the equally good “Lips of Blood” it’s probably one of my favorite of his films. There are those who describe the bulk of his films as having mostly used Art House sensibilities to disguise exploitative eroticism to merely pander to a mass audience, but that is too dismissive of his work I think, which has a stamp all it’s own. Similar European horror films of the time were equally as shocking, but never as well filmed and downright pretty to watch and most never approached his best on any artistic level. Neko can recommend this one easily and I give it 4 well deserved “Meows” out of 5 for possibly being the most beautiful and “fairy tale” of the zombie films I’ve ever seen. It’s not a perfect film, sometimes sacrificing common sense and continuity for mood and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea… but it’s certainly a film worth a look. Thank goodness that’s a relatively easy thing to do, with multiple DVD’s available in practically all Regions and formats with subtitles in most any language you might want. Once in a while the Movie Fairies are kind……
Trailer? Yep… that’s a given! Enjoy!!