Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Living Dead Girl (La Morte Vivante) - review

1982 (France)

Contains spoilers. 

As with most low budget eighties euro nasties I'm torn. Undoubtedly, from acting to script to effects it's easy to pull Jean Rollin's effort apart; yet as has happened before, dare to peer beneath the rather mediocre, sleazy and derivative surface, and it could be argued there's perhaps quite the deep, brooding and entirely engaging angst ridden depth to sink ones teeth into. On the surface a tale of one child hood friend aiding and abetting a seemingly broken and damaged other with increasing disregard for laws or morality, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a cheap slasher with enough escalating violence and nudity to satisfy the braying mob. Yet I think, as is the way with European horror, to make the most of the film is to not bemoan and critique every minute detail, but to focus on the allegory and to ponder a deep and brave philosophical tragedy.

Take for instance the all rather by the numbers opening sequence; of toxic waste, incompetent handling and the inexplicable resurrection of star of the show Françoise Blanchard as Living Dead Girl Catherine Valmont followed by all the gory, excessive and highly choreographed blood shed you'd expect from a continental eighties video nasty. It has a certain nostalgic charm but its amateurish, shoddy and all rather derivative to the point of being easy to dismiss and deride. But I'm going to come to its defence. If one posits, as I do, that film is only really about Catherine, her child hood friend Hélène (Marina Pierro) and their increasingly twisted and morally transient relationship, it's ok that the background is grey and maybe deliberately immaterial and poor. Maybe I'm thinking too deeply, and too forgiving of the rather cheap and throwaway extra characters (especially US model Carina Barone as Barbara Simon and her lover Mike Marshall as Greg) and all the awkwardly drawn out superfluous scenes and sequences, but the core philosophical narrative encourages deeper thought, and it ensures the poignant story isn't lost in all the blood soaked noise.

Catherine and Hélène are more than best child hood buddies. With a blood oath theirs is a friendship that will defy and survive even death. Thus when Catherine reaches out and Hélène comes running it's only a matter of time until she's happy to be complicit in all that it takes to satiate the dead girls gruesome demands. For a fan of the genre the film is a fascinating study in deadness in a physical and hunger driven sense and deadness in a conscious ethical framework. Catherine comes back from the dead as a blood hungry zombie without will, conscious checks and balances and I'd argue no cognitive ability other than when the time is right to recognise her one true love (though I'd argue she'd have even attacked her the moment she returned.)

Hélène contrary, is alive, human, and fully reasoning, yet has her own issues, as drawn to Catherine's side she's immediately forced to make increasingly morally dubious snap decisions, in a surreal whirlwind of emotion and consequence. Their relationship, and the philosophical conundrum the film presents, is that with each brutal death and feeding, Catherine regains some of her will and self. Her memories, consciousness and conscience begin to return bringing with it an existential crisis and internal moral conflict as she comes to terms with the monster she's become. Counter to this, Hélène close to having back the friend that was lost; is increasingly desperate and single minded to the extreme in her determination; but she's also increasingly numb and ambivalent from and to the pain and death she's responsible for. I'm sure there's a fitting quote from Nietzsche I could use here, something about monsters and the abyss; save to say by the end Rollin's exquisite moral tragedy had come together with resonance and ambiguous devastation.

Living Dead Girl will perhaps be remembered for it's extremely graphic and shocking ending; a drawn out scene of zombie cannibalism more excessive and sobering, yet emotional and heavy than anything else I've seen. It will also be remembered for its ample nudity, though I'd argue it's not only rather more tastefully handled than Rollin's other films, notably Zombie Lake, it's even aesthetically and narratively coherent. For most it will probably be remembered but ultimately dismissed for all the above plus its amateurish eighties euro trash credentials; of poor acting, bad effects and awkward dialogue. However, I'd personally like it to be remembered for the audacity of Rollin to try and play with humanity, love and death in a deeply nuanced, respectful, unique and beautiful way - 8/10.


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