DVD Review: Zombie Lake (1981)

Zombie Lake opens with a bit of a fib: there is no director by the name of  ‘J.A. Laser’, and the pseudonym conceals the fact that the film was actually directed by Jean Rollin, who is of course better known for rather more artistic fare. It turns out that Zombie Lake had a bit of a troubled birth, with the original director, Jess Franco, quitting the project before it began. It then fell to Rollin to take up the reins, but by all accounts he was so mortified by the script that he decided to disguise the fact that he’d had anything to do with it. To be fair, though, misgivings about the script don’t excuse some of the ridiculous errors that occur throughout on Rollin’s watch, but somehow, this is all part of the full Zombie Lake experience.

I think part of the film’s issues stem from the fact that the film starts from some nude scenes and then works out the rest of the plot from there; well, after a fashion. The lake is allowed to live up to its name from the outset, though to be honest, when the first young lady peels off for a spot of sunbathing and rebellious swimming (hurling the NO SWIMMING sign into the long grass for good measure) I was in mortal fear of splinters rather than the undead. She hops over a fence after disrobing and…ooh. That could have been nasty. Anyway, the lake scenes are cut with scenes which clearly take place in a swimming pool (knock yourselves out noticing that the lily-pads disappear, spotlights and even cables can be seen in said pool) but we get the gist – Nazi zombies have a habit of popping by every time a pretty girl goes for a swim. The girl’s family (?) decide to look for her, the day after – and the town’s mayor, played by Euro-horror demi-god Howard Vernon, adds that he’ll investigate the day after that. No one is any rush whatsoever to do anything in this film, and the townsfolk seem to while away most of their days in the local hostelry, when they’re not hauling off dead women from the lake and dumping them unceremoniously on the pavement so that everyone can see their knickers, that is.

Still, attacking a local lass is clearly not on, and events begin to attract the attention of outsiders – an investigative journalist turns up, and some tough, uncompromising cops take an interest too – with Rollin himself cast as one of their number. We gradually – oh, so gradually – begin to gather something of the back story here, where we learn that it’s since WWII that the ‘Damned Lake’ has really started living up to its name, although someone makes a throwaway comment that people used to hold black masses there in the olden days. Huh, that would make a pretty good film. What matters here and now is that the Nazis ended up in the lake after the locals shot a load of them as they were withdrawing from France, and decided to conceal what they’d done (because shooting Nazis would be frowned upon? No idea.) One of the Nazi zombies is a Nazi zombie with a difference, however: after knocking up a suspiciously-contemporary looking French girl during the Occupation prior to getting shot, it seems he’s come back from his watery tomb as a doting dad, and pops along to visit his daughter. Yes, really. Well, even the lounging locals can’t continue to ignore what’s going on after an ENTIRE LADIES BASKETBALL TEAM go missing after they all decide to go au naturel swimming, so doting dad zombie is in trouble. It’s the kid I feel sorry for; and to be fair, Anouchka, the child who plays Helena, is rather punching above her weight here, as she actually acts her part in this strange yarn. Can she bear to part with her dear dead dad for the sake of her village?

So it sounds, does it not, as if I hated watching Zombie Lake – but this isn’t the case. It sets an important benchmark in what a film needs in order to transcend from ‘bad’, to ‘bad good’; the jumble of ideas, the script, the laugh-out-loud errors, such as my personal favourite – glimpsing the bloody camera crew reflected in a mirror in the mayor’s office – and the complete torpour which envelops the whole film from cast to pace to (eventual) resolution is all sort of charming. The film’s complete lack of enthusiasm for itself is quite endearing. The sense of “oh sod it, that’ll do” is at least honest, and seeing what Jean Rollin makes of subject matter which he was clearly not comfortable or happy with provides…schadenfreude, maybe, or at least curiosity about what the film could throw at us next. I’d certainly say the film needs to be seen to be believed, and it’s a prime candidate for producing with relish post-pub to inflict on other people – a bit like the video tape in Ring, only without the hassle of imminent death-by-Sadako. I first saw this film as part of a ‘bad movie club’, and everyone had a great time with the film. Ultimately, although it probably does it in utterly unintentional ways, Zombie Lake is very entertaining. And, hey, audiences may have been incredulous once at the thought of Nazi zombies, but the idea has persisted – even if Dead Snow dispensed of the idea of post-mortem visitation rights. Perhaps Zombie Lake has been quietly shaping modern horror all this time…

Zombie Lake will be re-released by Black House Films on 20th March 2017.