Retro Film Review: Zombie Lake

Holds a distinctive position in the annals of execrable movie trash

Films are bad for myriad reasons: budgetary restrictions, production snafus, poor concepts, lack of talent, or good intentions gone awry. But Zombie Lake holds a distinctive position in the annals of execrable movie trash: it is the film most clearly made by people who simply didn't give a shit - a fact underlined on a scene-by-scene basis as the cinematic shortcomings are openly displayed with complete indifference to their impact on the audience.

Here is a far from complete list of ineptitude:

  • The "zombie lake" of the title, when seen beneath the surface, is obviously a swimming pool.
  • In awkward subtitles, characters quibble over the nickname of the lake (is it "Lake of the Damned," "The Damned Lake," or "The Damned Lake of the Damned"?) without clarifying what difference it makes or explaining why the lake has the power to resurrect Nazi soldiers as zombies.
  • The narrative structure, including a flashback to World War II, indicates the main action should take place sometime in the 1950s, but despite a French village location with a presumably "timeless" look, everything about the film feels like the 1980s.
  • During a WWII skirmish, the same stunt action is shown twice from different angles, and we're supposed to pretend we are seeing two separate incidents.
  • When an all-girl volleyball team shows up just long enough to provide a little T&A, they make it painfully obvious, in the minute or two before they strip down, that they do not possess enough eye-hand coordination to keep the ball airborne for five continuous seconds.
  • A dialogue scene builds to a character intoning the clichéd line, "I fear there's a lot more to this than meets the eye," but instead of ending on the climactic closeup, the scene pointlessly runs on as another character awkwardly makes an exit that we do not need to see.
  • Zombie makeup doesn't extend below the chin, despite open-necked costumes.
  • Facial appliances barely stick to the actors, but the director has no qualms about showcasing the deficiency in extended closeups that swirl around to reveal the flaws from every angle.

In short, you will see more competent craftsmanship in your average YouTube video.

The indifference of the filmmakers is mirrored by the indifference of the characters, who are agonizingly slow to deal with the zombie menace emerging from the lake near their quaint French village. After the first victim disappears, an apathetic acquaintance decides not to inform the mayor until the next morning. Then the mayor announces that he will call the police if the missing girl does not show up by tomorrow (since he has just been presented with the girl's clothes, found by a lake where she went for a swim, he seems strangely unperturbed by the thought that she might have drowned; he must presume she can hold her breath a long time - either that, or she's wandering around the nearby woods, naked).

By this time, another victim has been killed, which "galvanizes" the mayor into action: he suggests sending the body to a hospital for an autopsy to see whether "anything's wrong," even though her torn-open throat provides ample visible evidence that something is indeed very wrong. While waiting for the results, he sits down with a female reporter for a twenty-minute flashback explaining that a squad of German soldiers was killed by French resistance fighters and dumped in the lake. When he finally gets the vaguely worded results ("severed jugular, other unidentified injuries"), he dismisses the suggestion that the attacker was a wild beast, as if he has known all along what is really wrong - which raises the question: Why is he in no hurry to do anything? In fact, there is an unintentionally funny moment when the letter with the autopsy results admonish the mayor to "waste no time" tracking down the beast; it's as if the letter were speaking on behalf of weary viewers, desperate for the characters to get off their collective ass and do something.

Fortunately, the demise of the van-full of previously mentioned volleyball girls cannot be ignored, so the police send Inspectors Spitz and Morane; the names are apparently supposed to invoke a soothing sense of professional competence. Unfortunately, Spitz and Morane fail to live up to their names, becoming immediate zombie chow (which requires them, absurdly, to remain more or less stationary so that the shuffling zombies can overwhelm them). After a few more zombie attacks (including one upon a topless woman taking a bath outdoors in a barrel) and a failed ambush using rifles, the female reporter suggests burning the zombies - which the mayor regards as a stroke of inspirational genius - and a villager suggests repairing the old flamethrower that happens to by lying around for just such an occasion. The audience, meanwhile, is wondering why no one had this brainstorm thirty minutes ago - probably because the filmmakers were having trouble stretching their narrative to feature length.

If there is one remarkable aspect of Zombie Lake, it is the oddball attempt to humanize its revenants. Unlike the mindless flesh-eaters of most zombie flicks, these undead soldiers maintain formation, attack in unison, spring on their victims from hiding places, and generally show signs of human (if minimal) intelligence. In fact, these zombies are blood-drinkers, for no particular reason, so they seem a bit more like old-fashioned vampires of lore (before literature and film turned them into phantom seducers).

zombie-lakeposterIn one of the stranger narrative threads, a resurrected German soldier fends off his fellow zombies to protect the love-child he sired with one of the village women during the war - suggesting that the living dead are capable of familial sentiments. This leads to a dubious dramatic conflict when the mayor seeks the child's help to destroy the zombies; the girl's dilemma (save her village or save her father) is undercut by the fact that there's really nothing significant she can do to aid the villagers, who only have to wait for the next zombie attack in order to turn on the repaired flamethrower and finally bring the film to a fiery (if lame) conclusion.

Is all of this enough to transform Zombie Lake from simply bad to so-bad-it's-good? No, but it is so bad that it must be seen to be believed.

For the record, Zombie Lake is the first of a pair of Nazi zombie movies produced by Eurociné in the early 1980s. Apparently, trash-meister Jesús Franco was supposed to direct, but after he went AWOL the weekend before shooting was to commence, Jean Rollin stepped, with no goal other than getting the film in the can. Judging by the results, the only time he took any interest in the proceedings was during the soft-core scenes - such as the first victim's extended skinny-dip during the opening credits - which evince a loving eye for the female form (at least before that form is mutilated by zombie teeth). The next year, Franco directed Oasis of the Zombies for Eurociné.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.

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