Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
A tale from the crypt
A UK region 0 DVD review of THE LIVING DEAD GIRL / LA MORTE VIVANTE by Slarek
 

The work of French director Jean Rollin is justly celebrated within the horror fraternity. If the name is new to you then you can find a brief introduction in my coverage of Lost in New York, or better still look him up on the Net – you'll find plenty of often detailed coverage. His fascination with the figure of the female vampire has given rise to some memorably individualistic films, ones whose blend of horror, eroticism and poetry are hardly typical of the genre norm. His 1982 The Living Dead Girl [La Morte Vivante] is a case in point, a modern-day vampire tale that delivers on the gore but whose prime concerns are ones of love, loss and the lifelong bonds of friendship.

It all starts in somewhat typical genre fashion. Three unscrupulous workers from the local industrial plant are using the crypt of an uninhabited chateau as a dumping ground for toxic waste. While there they decide it might be a neat idea to open the coffins of two of the castle's former occupants, the recently deceased Antoinette Valmont and her daughter Catherine, and rob the corpses of their jewellery. A small earth tremor causes a chemical spillage that revives the surprisingly well preserved Catherine, who kills the intruders and feeds off their blood.

OK, no real surprises here. Toxic waste was a popular replacement for radiation in 1970s and 80s horror, and genre fans took with a pinch of salt its various mutational and even semi-supernatural effects on both the living and the dead. It was never crucial to the story, just a device for kicking off the narrative, and that's where The Living Dead Girl gets interesting.

Rather than terrorising the neighbourhood with a vampiric rampage, Catherine returns to the chateau in which she was raised and is haunted by objects and images from her childhood, particularly her bond-of-blood friendship with Hélène, who still deeply misses the girl she had pledged to love forever. Although empty since Catherine's death two years earlier, the chateau is on the market, and as Catherine arrives the building is being shown to a pair of wealthy Americans by a young estate agent. Fortunately for them all, their paths do not cross (the moment they nearly do is quietly effective), but the estate agent still digs her own grave when she and her boyfriend use the keys to have a dirty weekend in the chateau's plush surroundings, where they are bloodily slaughtered by Catherine. Her old friend Hélène, meanwhile, is given a start when she phones the chateau and is greeted by the sound of a music box that was once precious to her and Catherine. She arrives there to find two bodies and the blood-spattered girl she thought was dead, whose inability to speak she puts down to shock. It takes a while for her to realise what has actually occurred, but in spite of her horror, she becomes determined to provide Catherine with the human blood that she clearly requires, convinced that it will eventually return her to the land of the living.

There's a sense of the hybrid about The Living Dead Girl that those familiar with Rollin's work will recognise but will likely divide the uninitiated. Despite some dodgy prosthetics, gore hounds should find plenty to chew on here, while the beautiful women and odd bit of full-frontal nudity should keep a large portion of male audience intermittently happy. But the film is also a sensitively handled and ultimately tragic tale of love tested to the extreme, of the moral choices we make in its name, and of its potential as a self-destructive force, all of which is likely to bemuse or exasperate a sizeable number of those who tuned in for the sex and violence. Which is a shame, because this is the element that makes The Living Dead Girl just that little bit special.

Crucial to this is the character of Hélène, whose devotion to her friend overrides her own sense of right and wrong and proves ultimately self-serving, her determination to regain her lost companionship prompting her to ignore Catherine's pleas for her own destruction. It's the sequences involving Hélène and Catherine that give the film its heart, as well assuring its place in vampire filmography. Largely rejecting the concept of a supernatural resurrection in favour of a biochemical one, the film kicks against the icon of the vampire as a powerful and predatory figure. Despite Catherine's aristocratic background and her early killings, her gradually realisation of what she is and the price that must be paid for her continued existence is one she eventually finds intolerable. It helps that Catherine's initial confusion, gradual awakening and inner torment are convincingly captured by Françoise Blanchard, while Borowczyk regular Marina Pierro makes Hélèn's drift into self-centred obsession believable. Other performances are less well judged, with the unconvincingly fever-pitched bickering of Mike Marshall and Carina Barone turning a potentially interesting side-story involving vacationing American couple Greg and Barbara (well Greg's certainly American, but the jury's out on Babs) into an annoying distraction.

How the film sits in the Rollin oeuvre has also divided opinion, with those who see it as a lesser work seemingly equalled by its enthusiastic supporters, some of whom regard it as one of the director's best. The handling is assured, the atmosphere wistfully dreamlike and the imagery is sometimes memorably composed. It's certainly a must for Rollin enthusiasts and for vampire movie devotees who like to see genre conventions broken (although the well-worn theme of vampirism as drug addiction is certainly at play here). Despite its bursts of graphic violence, The Living Dead Girl is a touching and lyrical vampire tale, and one in which the vampire is as much of a victim as those she feeds on.

Although this may look like a re-release of one of Redemption's most popular titles, this version restores 4 minutes of previously censored footage and thus represents the first UK release of the film in its original, uncut form.

sound and vision

Counting against the 1.66:1 transfer here is its letterboxed format and some occasionally jaggie-inducing edge enhancement, but in all other respects this is a first class job, an almost spotless print that boasts excellent sharpness, colour and contrast. Rollin fans should be well happy with this.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack shows its age more obviously, with a slight background hiss joined early on by a low volume clicking and later by some crackle. Neither last too long, and despite some crispness to the dialogue trebles, the track is otherwise adequate for the job.

extra features

Stills
7 film stills and a French poster. No big shakes.

Trailer (3:12)
An explicit sell that looks suspiciously like it's been assembled recently from the print on this disc.

Les Pays lion (15:41)
A very good early Rollin short that is also included on Redemption's Lost in New York DVD, and it's covered in our review of that film. There are also 7 stills from Les Pays lion.

Also included are trailers for other Redemption releases City of the Dead, Belcebu and Sacred Flesh and promos for albums on their Triple Silence and Hydra labels.

summary

Not one for all horror fans, The Living Dead Girl is nicely representative of Rollin's trademark mix of bloody violence, eroticism and gentle poetry. A little light on extras – the short film has already appeared on one of Redemption's Jean Rollin releases and there is no sign of the Rollin interview promised in the press release – but the transfer sparkles and it's great to see the film restored to its former glory.

The Living Dead Girl
La Morte vivante

France 1982
86 mins
director
Jean Rollin
starring
Marina Pierro
Françoise Blanchard
Mike Marshall
Carina Barone

DVD details
region 0
video
1.66:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
French / English
subtitles
English
extras
Short film: Les Pays lion
Stills
Trailers
CD promo
distributor
Redemption
release date
27 August 2007
review posted
26 August 2007

related reviews
Lost in New York
Dracula's Fiancée

See all of Slarek's reviews