HCF REWIND NO. 257: THE LIVING DEAD GIRL AKA LA MORTE VIVANTE [France 1982]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 86 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Two men break into an old crypt, seeking to dump toxic waste and rob the graves. When an earthquake causes the toxic waste to spill, Catherine Valmont, a young woman who died two years ago, is resurrected, kills the thieves and drinks their blood. She returns to her old house, the Valmont Mansion, and memories of her childhood come back to her, especially her childhood friend, Hélène. As Catherine wanders the house, an estate agent shows an old couple around the property, though they show little interest. Hélène calls the house, presumably inquiring about it. She hears a cherished music box, leading her to believe that Catherine may still be alive….
Around twenty years ago, or maybe even before that, I tried to get into the minimalist, surreal, low budget movies of French cult film director Jean Rollin, but they left me cold and even a little bored. There was one exception though – The Living Dead Girl – which seemed to be the work of a strong filmmaker of great vision and skill, and one that intrigued me from the outset. I guess it may be time again to try out Rollin again, as tastes change and all that and I like to think I’m a more broad-minded and patient viewer now, at least of stuff that is ‘off the beaten track’. The Living Dead Girl is an offbeat vampire tale which mixes downbeat lyricism with graphic gore in a rather effective way. Like all of Rollins’s films, it was shot quickly and cheaply so there is the occasional clumsy moment or obvious gaffe, but it attempts some depth and has a certain resonance which easily makes up for the flaws. And anyone who has sat through the Twilight films and wants to see a moody, sympathetic blood-sucker done well needs to check out The Living Dead Girl.
After his highly stylised early work, much of it featuring lesbian vampires [which makes me wonder why I didn’t enjoy it more], Rollin was struggling to get films off the ground and was becoming more of a director for hire as well as even being reduced to making pornographic movies to pay the bills. After the dire Zombie Lake, you’d think that Rollin had all-but ‘lost it’, but it was followed by The Living Dead Girl. Though a project in which Rollin was at last genuinely interested in, the raised budget by the producers meant using existing performers rather than Rollin’s usual ‘amateur’ cast members, something which intimidated Rollin on set, though he did unsuccessfully seek out Teresa Ann Savoy [Caligula] for the title role, plus also inserting some gory special effects, gore being something which Rollin found boring. They were done by 17-year old Benoit Lestang who went on to have a good career in the special effects industry. An English language version was shot on the same sets and locations by Gregory Heller, and it seems to me, though I haven’t so far been able to substantiate this, that some of his footage remains in the French version. In any case, the English language version was never released, but The Living Dead Girl did better than most Rollin films at the French box office, though it was banned in Germany and cut by just over two and a half minutes in the UK until it finally got passed uncut in 2007. The cuts removed some shots from three gory death scenes, most of a torture scene involving a sword slitting a stomach, and most of the gruesome cannibalistic climax.
The Living Dead Girl doesn’t actually begin too well, as two men decide to dump some toxic waste in a crypt [the thoughtful pair don’t want to dump it in the sea because of the fishes], then decide to do some grave robbing. Though this is in some ways an archetypal horror film opening, the poor acting, dialogue and lazy script contrivance of having some of the waste spill and revive our title character, not to mention her corpse being perfectly preserved two years after her death, makes it seem like you’re going to see some fun trash but nothing more. One of the two men is rather amusingly burned and killed by some of the spilt waste [it doesn’t sound funny but the way it’s done onscreen, it is] , but his companion, plus another waiting outside, are dispatched in startlingly gory fashion with throats ripped out and fingers in eyes. Then a photographer sees Catherine walking zombie-like across a field, and tries to get her boyfriend, also a photographer, to believe her that the lady who inhabited the mansion nearby is still alive. It’s their part of the story that seems shot by the other director, as it’s in English, is rather poor with awkward dialogue, and just doesn’t seem to be part of the rest of the film at all.
Otherwise, the film really starts to cast quite a strange, if languid, spell. Catherine returns to the Valmont Mansion and, after some hesitation, and amidst touching flashbacks of moments of their childhood together, reveals herself to her friend Helene. It doesn’t take long before Helene starts to procure victims for her to feed on, while her love for Catherine is so strong she doesn’t seem to be put off by the fact she’s a vampire with elements of zombie-ism and is more than often seen covered in blood. Rollin actually stops short of the lesbianism he sometimes indulged in here. Though Catherine and Helene clearly love each other, it’s more of a very deep friendship, yet still very touching and you really begin to care about it despite them both being in a way killers. Every now and again there’s an extremely bloody gore scene, and at times it jars with the almost fairy-tale ambiance. The final scene is extremely disturbing, but is also in a way oddly moving, the ultimate sacrifice for love, and probably the only logical way the story and the relationship of its two main characters could truly end. No Hollywood vampire tale would end this way, that’s for sure.
Kiefer Sutherland may have said: “It’s cool to be a vampire”, but I’ve always thought that being a vampire would actually be rather painful. This is how The Living Dead Girl portrays vampirism. Marino Pierro’s startling performance shows the agony of the disease [for that’s what it is here] in quite powerful ways, especially when her blood lust is starting to come on and she’s desperately trying to fight if off. Catherine starts to become more human as the films goes on, but also becomes increasingly aware that she’s a vampire. The moment where she realises she’s been killing people is a rather powerful and deeply sad one. This is how to do this kind of thing right. Catherine is sexy [Marino really is a stunner], sad and even pathetic, but she’s still dangerous. You feel considerable compassion for her, even when she claws at a victim’s heart in one of several scenes which really show the savagery of vampirism in a way few other films have done, but remain a little afraid. Though no masterpiece by any stretch, I feel this film is one of the best depictions of vampirism on screen.
Rollin’s camera likes to be still and often keep its distance, which hardly ramps up the tension but certainly adds to the dreamy atmosphere, though maybe there are a few too many instances of the camers slowly zooming out and then back in. Lestang’s effects are a mixed bag but he still achieved a lot considering the amount of gore required with the budget he had. Philippe d’ Aram’s score largely uses percussion to create odd sounds, though a lyrical theme for the two main characters appears every now and again. With a few alterations and improvements here and there, The Living Dead Girl could have been a true horror classic, but it remains a minor one as it stands. It clearly influenced Let The Right One In, which is a far better made film, but The Living Dead Girl is more daring, even if, at its heart it’s basically a love story of great purity.