Going into the 1980s — actually starting with 1978's fantastic 'The Grapes of Death' — Jean Rollin brought his distinctive mix of gothic eroticism and oneiric visual style to the realm of zombie gore. Of course, this being a Rollin horror feature, nothing is ever so simple and straightforward. As is always his knack, he toys and jumbles a variety of clichés with a sensual romanticized fantasy, never fully embracing the archetypes of a single genre or allowing his movies to be so easily defined. Being familiar with his work, we wouldn't have it any other way since his unique approach is precisely the reason he's loved by cult horror aficionados. He succeeds at blending horror elements with a bizarre visual artistry that hauntingly dreamlike and weirdly transcending.
In 'The Living Dead Girl,' Rollin's zombies are not the rotting, slow-walking corpses of George Romero's nightmare, the type which have become the most common standard of the genre. It's also not the updated, sudden-sprinting form of Danny Boyle's doomsday vision. No, Rollin's zombie is a drop-dead gorgeous specimen, despite sleeping in a coffin for the past two years according to the plot. Played by the stunning Françoise Blanchard, who does a terrific job in the role, Catherine Valmont looks just as graceful as the day she died, revived by a chemical spill and possesses a vampiric thirst for blood. Most impressive about this unique approach to zombies is Rollin and Blanchard's efforts to make the dead girl into a sympathetic character rather than a monstrous creature to fear.
From a screenplay Rollin co-wrote with Jacques Ralf, this compassionate twist to the genre becomes more evident once Catherine restores her ability to speak and essentially becomes self-aware of her condition. Although she does what she must in order to survive, which is where the shocking gore comes in, she thoughtfully and even somewhat poetically explains her disgust with her current situation, eventually desiring death over life. Making the undead a melancholic affliction of one's will to survive versus the will to live is what separates Rollin's films from the endless muck of low-budget, B-level fodder. When a childhood best friend, Hélène (Marina Pierro), comes into the picture and helps to provide Catherine with the necessary nourishment, the story again takes another interesting twist by toying with Edgar Allan Poe territory.
Like the legendary author's tales of the macabre, Hélène starts slowly spiraling into bouts of insanity as she forced to hear the wailing sounds of death echo throughout the Valmont château. Like her ghoulish love, she, too, struggles with her inner desires, readily but also lamentably keeping her friend alive while rationalizing with her conscience and guilt. It's a nicely-done and morbid fantasy sadly hindered, if only begrudgingly, by the superfluous subplot of a pair of Americans (Mike Marshall and Carina Barone) vacationing in a nearby village. They ultimately add nothing to a rather surprising conclusion, but could funnily be construed as part of an earlier gag, where another couple is told about the château's catacombs hidden beneath because, you know, those Yanks are into weird things. Marshall and Barone's quarreling couple only shows what happens when Americans meddle in another country's personal affairs.
In actuality, their presence serves a greater purpose, one which created tension and stress for Jean Rollin. Similar to the production of Tod Browning's 'Dracula,' producers of this movie wanted a cut for the U.S. market, but rather than using horrible dubbing, they hired director Gregory Heller to create his own version with the same cast and crew. Having never seen this American version, I doubt it's as atmospheric or stylish as Rollin's vision. I admit this film, like most of Rollin's canon, is not for everyone, or honestly even for a wide audience. This is a filmmaker that deliberately tries to create visual art out of the tastelessly vulgar and offensive. You don't walk into his films gaining a larger understanding of our world or of the human condition. You walk in expecting cheap trashy fun with the added poetic photography making it all look cool and memorable. And in case, you were wondering, 'The Living Dead Girl' is the inspiration behind the popular Rob Zombie song from his Hellbilly Deluxe album.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Living Dead Girl' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
The package also includes a glossy 12-page booklet with a lengthy essay on the films of Jean Rollin by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog entitled "The Depth of a Sister's Love" with a variety of photos.
'The Living Dead Girl' is brought back to life with a very good 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Although presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (OAR is 1.66:1), the picture quality is a significant jump from the previous DVD over a decade ago. White specks and dirt do creep up on occasion, but it's nothing too distracting as the high-def transfer overall looks to be in great shape with excellent definition in the surrounding foliage and the furniture inside Valmont's château. In fact, every detail of the home's interior is clearly visible, and exterior shots expose every facet and imperfection of the large stone bricks. Colors are cleanly rendered with pleasantly bold primaries throughout. Contrast is bit more middle of the road, but still fairly bright to give the video a nice pop. Black levels tend to fluctuate from one scene to the next, though not in any significantly damaging manner. The print used is also starting to show its age as both edges of the screen expose some fading at certain spots.
While still an improvement from its Dolby legacy counterpart, the uncompressed PCM soundtrack nevertheless comes with severe issues worth noting. The more obvious aspect is the constant hissing and noise in the background, which often becomes more apparent during certain scenes of dialogue and music. Although easy enough to forgive considering the movie's age and low-budget origins, it tends to distract nonetheless on several occasions. Vocals are very clearly and intelligible, but the entire soundstage is off-balance as most of the action seems to be coming from the left side. This makes conversations and other character activity appear at odds with what's happening on-screen. There's very little range within the dynamics and acoustics, noticeably clipping and sounding bright in the upper ranges. Little else is going on in the lower octaves, making this lossless mix a generally flat, one-note show.
Special features mirror with the DVD release.
Like other films in the cinema of Jean Rollin, 'The Living Dead Girl' is not for everyone outside of cult horror aficionados. The story of a young woman resuscitated by an accidental chemical spill, which is technically of the zombie gore variety, is made into a unique melancholic tale of the macabre with the usual visual design Rollin is known for, taking tasteless trash into an art-house mentality. The Blu-ray arrives with a great picture quality but very disappointing audio. Supplements mirror the DVD and are sadly quite small, but they add a decent value to the package which will convince fans to purchase.