Director: Jean Rollin
Kino Lorber/Redemption

Veteran French exploitation auteur Jean Rollin fittingly adapts to the changing trends of early 1980s horror with THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (“La Morte Vivante”), a vampire/zombie hybrid which manages to stay true to his trademark sense of the surreal and the erotic. Entertaining and over the top, the film maintains the director’s penchant for beautiful natural locales, rich gothic castles, a kick-in-the-jimmy downbeat ending and a sense of atmospheric style unmatched by his American contemporaries, despite the limited budget at his disposal.

Illegally getting rid of a barrel of toxic waste, some unorthodox moving van fellows dump the container in the underground catacombs of the currently uninhabited Valmont castle (as opposed to tossing it in the ocean, as one of them conscientiously exclaims, “It kills the fish”). While down there, they set their sights on robbing graves, as two coffins lie in the adjoining room. As the coffin of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard, REVENGE IN THE HOUSE OF USHER), the deceased young heiress of the castle, is opened and the slimy intruder gawks at her well preserved, youthful beauty, a minor earthquake causes the barrel of waste to spill over, with the gasses from it resurrecting the girl from death. She rises with an instant thirst for blood and a hunger for flesh, violently devouring the men with her pointy finger nails and feeding off their sweaty bodies.

Mute and confused, Catherine roams the hallways and chambers of her former home, slowly remembering her past life but in constant need of blood, and that calls for impromptu murder. Catherine’s childhood friend and “blood sister” Hélène (Maria Pierro, DOCTEUR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES) telephones the castle, not knowing that it’s up for sale, but fully aware that her friend has been deceased for two years. After hearing the sounds of a music box that belonged to Catherine over the receiver, but not hearing any voice, her suspicions cause her to visit the castle where she discovers a couple of mutilated nude bodies (the young female realtor brought her boyfriend there for some hanky panky, only to be devoured by the Living Dead Girl) and her believed-to-be dead best friend playing piano in the buff. Hélène believes that Catherine’s death was some kind of mistake after seeing her up and about, and she tends to her by discarding her victims and washing the blood stains from her statuesque body, and knowing her penchant for fresh blood, she devotedly enables her addiction by luring victims to the castle. In the meantime, an American couple named Greg (Mike Marshall, MOONRAKER) and Barbara (Carina Barone) encounter the undead Catherine in the fields from afar: Barbara takes a photo of the girl, and becomes overly concerned and fascinated when the villagers identify her as a prominent citizen who passed away two years ago.

Even those not wild about Rollin’s earlier, abstract and sometimes nonsensical bloodsucker endeavors might enjoy what THE LIVING DEAD has to offer. Though not as heavily surreal as some of his other films, it manages to tell a rather straightforward yet absorbing horror tale that’s both poetic and overtly grisly at the same time. You’ll have to forgo logic here (two years after her untimely demise, Catherine’s corpse is perfectly preserved before she again walks the earth), yet I presume that’s what makes Rollin’s films fairytale-like in the first place (and this one is definitely for adults). With many of Rollin’s previous vampire excursions being heavy on the sex and lesbianism angle, this one plays it plays it more subdued, as the “romantic” relationship between Catherine and Hélène is merely implied, and it's their everlasting devotion as friends that's the strong plot point. The nudity is also not as prevalent as it is in some of his other works, but there still a decent quotient of naked females on display, yet surprisingly, it never tends to feel overly gratuitous.

Rollin also takes obligatory sample from the American slasher film cycle, in the scene with a young couple peeling off their clothes to make a love in a thought-to-be empty setting; a given dual sacrifice and no surprise to the audience. You could also say that the graphic gore on display was inspired by what make-up and effects legend Tom Savini brought to some of the George Romero films, as well as handful of splatter flicks from the early 1980s. Here, eyes are gouged out, fingers are eaten off, throats are devoured and flesh and innards are feasted upon as blood spews left and right. Though some of these gore effects tend to be crude, they’re certainly not for the squeamish or easily nauseated, and they’re likely to satiate even the extreme gorehound.

As Catherine, Françoise Blanchard was well chosen as the beautiful (probably the sexiest zombie you’ll ever witness) but totally tragic undead figure. She’s an animalistic killing machine who only is tamed by Hélène’s presence, and she eventually regains her ability to speak and is given some pathos when she realizes the monster that she is, and because of that realization, only wants to die. An interesting facet to the story is how Hélène, loyal to the end to her childhood friend, becomes just as monstrous, scavenging for hapless victims to feed the ever bloodthirsty Catherine with no conscious or sense of remorse. Rollin illustrates the long-time camaraderie between the two with a string of purposely dull-colored flashbacks with the duo as adolescents, indulging in a “blood sisters” ritual that’s cemented their everlasting bond. What’s jarring here, this being a French Jean Rollin movie, is that several American characters break into English, and reportedly there was an English language version shot by a different director (Gregory Heller).

First released in the U.S. on DVD by Redemption though Image Entertainment back in 1999, Redemption and Kino Lorber now revisit the title in a new HD transfer and this Blu-ray disc (the same HD transfer is also being made available on standard DVD). THE LIVING DEAD GIRL’s resurrection in HD is quite remarkable, making all those hard-to-forget images of blood-soaked zombie gut munching, dreamlike atmosphere and striking female bodies truly stand out. The 1080p transfer, taken from the original 35mm negative, presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen presentation (1.78:1), with the image having expectedly sharp detail throughout. Colors are vibrant and well saturated, fleshtones are natural and black levels are deep. The film source is also very clean, with few instances of print blemishes. The mono audio is in the original French language (apart from a few scenes here and there spoken in English) and it’s a solid-sounding trouble-free track with optional English subtitles included, naturally.

This release is rich with extras, the only complaint being that none of them have the participation of star Blanchard, only because she was interviewed for a European DVD of the film released by Encore in 2005. The late Jean Rollin is featured three times here: a brief introduction (1:22) shot in 1998, a short interview excerpt (2:56) on where he discusses THE LIVING DEAD GIRL from 2007, and more extensively, he can be seen candidly in “Jean Rollin at Fantasia” (36:23) talking in front of and taking questions from a French-speaking audience at a 2007 Montreal film festival screening of his personal print of SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES.

There a four new featurettes all shot in HD and directed by Daniel Gouyette, each in French with English subtitles. “Jean-Pierre Bouyxou on La Morte Vivante” (7:00) has the film critic and frequent Rollin collaborator discussing his small role in the film (as one of the horribly victimized grave robbers) as well as Rollin’s dislike for gore (he found it “boring”) and the “shamelessness” of actress Blanchard. “The American Version” (6:56) has Bouyxou talking about the unreleased English language version of THE LIVING DEAD GIRL, directed by Gregory Heller on the same sets with the same actors. “Music by Philippe D'Aram” (8:22) has the composer’s recollections of doing the score on Rollin’s “peanuts” budget, and how he used percussion and various instruments to create a strange vibe that fit the eerie mood of the film. “When I was Seventeen: An Homage to Benoit Lestang” (11:57) includes interview footage with Lestang (who sadly passed away in 2008 while in his early 40s) about the graphic gore effects he created for this, his first film, at age 17. Lestang expresses his dissatisfaction with the results (due to the budgetary restraints) and not surprisingly, drops Savini’s name as a major influence. Bouyxou can also be seen in this featurette discussing the late make-up man and having the prosthetics applied to his face (his eyes are graphically poked out Stooge-style). The original French trailer is included, as are trailers for Rollin’s RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE, THE NUDE VAMPIRE, THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES, THE IRON ROSE, THE DEMONIACS, LIPS OF BLOOD, FASCINATION and TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES. A 12-page booklet insert includes liner notes by Tim Lucas, which is exclusive to this film and TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES. (George R. Reis)