A look at French filmmaker Jean Rollin’s haunting 1982 horror masterpiece

Late French filmmaker Jean Rollin was the poet of European exploitation, bringing a gentle, aching melancholy and sensitivity to his erotic, bloody fever dreams. Of course, as with his contemporary Jess Franco, many of Rollin’s admirers and even his detractors will cite that exposed, nubile female flesh serve as the true power of the singular film-work he left behind. Certainly fetishized genitals and ethereal copulation add obvious sizzle to Rollin’s work, but there’s so much more to both the artist and the art. Rollin himself knew this, though he was often too humble to admit it, lost as he got in the Eurosex gutter that he and Franco and so many other great filmmakers got lost in throughout the 1970s and ’80s, living to work but still working to live and often forced to make pictures (re: porn) that were beneath them.

And while my favorite Rollin film will always be his elegiac vampire tragedy Lips of Blood, certainly none of his pictures are as erotic or bloody as his 1982 doomed love story The Living Dead Girl (La Morte Vivante, en francais), a film that, due to its high visceral content and obvious sexual trappings, might be the director’s most accessible work. This is not a derogatory statement, not a dismissal. On the contrary, The Living Dead Girl is an ideal entry point into Rollin’s oeuvre and boasts some of the his strongest, most haunting visual passages.

In the early 1980’s, frequent Rollin producer Sam Selsky wanted to compete with the swell of splatter leaking out of America and asked Rollin to deliver a straight “gore” film, which the director delivered in spades with The Living Dead Girl, ladling on the red stuff and ripping flesh and removing heads with wild abandon.  The meaty FX themselves, while vulgar, aren’t very convincing, but that doesn’t matter, really and doesn’t detract from the overall tone of the film. These sequences of straight sanguinary shock are in fact surreal in their artifice and brush up against that typical Rollin lyricism with striking images of beautiful, wispy women drifting through crumbling European locations, while the sun rises and sets around them and waves crash on reefs in the peripheral. It’s all rather stunning, as would be expected. The Living Dead Girl is explicit, yes. But it’s also a work of dream-logic art, armed with a brisk pace, a relatively high body count and a palpable emotional core.

The film follows the plight of a long dead woman named Catherine Valmont (haunting played by actress Francoise Blanchard) who is resurrected by a toxic chemical spill in her moldering crypt. In fact, The Living Dead Girl predates Dan O’Bannon’s seminal 1985 romp Return of the Living Dead by three years and indeed, the idea of chemical refuse bringing the dead back to life was realized here first. One wonders if O’Bannon saw this film. It’s most likely a coincidence, but the similarities are uncanny.

As the still fleshy and blonde she-zombie climbs from her coffin, she quickly murders a pair of lowlifes who were intent on raiding the tomb by shoving her fingers deep into in their soft throats and draining their blood through her fingertips. She then wanders the countryside, searching for her still-living friend Helene (Marina Pierro). When the two women are reunited (after Catherine murders and drains more victims first), Helene realizes her friend is now a kind of undead parasite and tries to protect her, while covering up her unfortunately necessary murders. She even lets Catherine drink from her body, just enough to sate her and curb her more lethal impulses…

But the more Catherine feeds (and her feeding is wildly messy), the more alert to her condition she becomes (the sequence where she wanders through the bedroom, simply touching items and remembering her dormant humanity is perhaps the most lyrical sequence in all of Rollin’s vampire canon) and she begins to pursue suicide. Helene however, refuses to let her friend, who is in essence now her lover, die again and soon drastic measures are taken to prevent this…

Like much of Rollin’s work, The Living Dead Girl is most assuredly a study in mood and tone and bloodletting illustrated as a ballet, though it’s a much more sickening dance this time around. Key motifs and imagery found in early Rollin female-centric masterworks like the aforementioned Lips of Blood, The Iron Rose and Requiem for a Vampire weave their way into the film, with the filmmaker’s earthiness fascinatingly at odds with the post-Friday the 13th slasher shocks; and yet somehow that resistance and eventual surrender adds a new dimension to Rollin’s language.

Watching The Living Dead Girl is an unforgettable, erotic, unsettling and ultimately moving experience, one highly recommended for novice Rollin-ites and devout scholars alike.

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