Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Cinema of Jean Rollin: La Morte Vivante (The Living Dead Girl) 1982

Thought of by some as the last truly great film of Jean Rollin's career, the 1982 feature La Morte Vivante (The Living Dead Girl) is a fascinating but flawed feature graced with two of the most unforgettable performances in all of Rollin's canon. A frustrating work brought to life by some of the most iconic imagery seen in a Rollin film, The Living Dead Girl is a simultaneously ferocious and poetic work deserving of its reputation as one of Rollin's most important films, although it is ultimately not one of his great pieces.

Justifiably frustrated by the muted receptions and limited distribution that had been granted to Fascination, The Night of the Hunted and The Escapees, Rollin looked to return to the more commercial and gory aspects of The Grapes of Death with The Living Dead Girl, a work he hoped would break commercially as well as artistically. Unfortunately, Rollin was once again plagued by a smaller budget than his material needed, and The Living Dead Girl finally feels at best like a 60 minute film padded with some nearly unwatchable filler to stretch it to a feature length running time.

Rollin charted the film's troubled production in Virgins and Vampires. "The producers wanted another zombie story", the iconic director noted and, "I got around it by turning the living dead into sort of a vampire woman." Working with the importance of memory found in so many of his films, especially Lips of Blood and The Iron Rose, and revisiting several key moments from The Grapes of Death, The Living Dead Girl feels a bit like a rushed composite of some of Rollin's richer works. The film could have been much more, but according to Rollin, "the problems started after the filming", when, "the co-producer jumped ship leaving me with unpaid lab bills". Once again Rollin had been abandoned financially and changes had to be made to The Living Dead Girl so the director could, "make a film that would earn a little money and get the lab back on track."

Indeed The Living Dead Girl was the most commercially successful production Rollin had directed since The Grapes of Death. Rollin went so far as to tell Peter Blumenstock in Virgins and Vampires and Video Watchdog that it was, "the most successful film", he had ever made and for the most part he was happy with it. Importantly though he told Blumenstock that he, "had to make certain commercial concessions" just to complete the film, and those concessions mar at nearly every turn what should have been one of Rollin's greatest works.

It is a tribute to the wonderfully effective turns that stars Francoise Blanchard and Marina Pierro give that the sequences in The Lving Dead Girl that don't work are so often overlooked. A good 30 minutes of the film is spent on the dreadfully boring adventures of two American tourists, and it is only when Blanchard or Pierro are on the screen that the film really works. Both lead actors in The Living Dead Girl are simply unforgettable, wonderfully combining a poetic realism with silent film theatrics.

According to Immoral Tales, Rollin got his first look at the stunning Italian beauty Mariana Pierro a year or so before he began shooting The Living Dead Girl at a festival where she was promoting Walerian Borowczyk's masterpiece Dr. Jekyll and his Women. Borowczyk's haunting muse turned out to the perfect choice for the living dead girl's companion in Rollin's film after his first choice, Caligula star Teresa Ann Savoy, refused to work with him. Despite some minor problems on the set between the beautiful Pierro and Rollin, the casting was inspired and the many close-ups of the Italian actress are some of the most amazing shots Rollin's camera ever captured.

While Pierro is terrific in the film, The Living Dead Girl really survives due to the savage and heartbreaking work of Blanchard, a clearly talented actress who gives one of the best performances in all of genre cinema. Barely uttering a word, Blanchard is remarkable in every moment of the film she appears in, and it is a shame that Rollin chose to pad the film out with the American tourists instead of just more shots of Blanchard's damaged and tortured gaze.

Tohill and Tombs wrote that The Living Dead Girl, "combines savage bloodletting and dreamy lyricism", but the film remains a broken dream of sorts as the viewer is never fully able to fall under its spell, unlike Lips of Blood or The Iron Rose. Too ambitious with its amateur make-up effects and not ambitious enough with its plotting, The Living Dead Girl is a fractured work deserving of as much criticism as praise.

Technically The Living Dead Girl is kind of all over the place. Rollin pointed out in the booklet that accompanied Encore's set that Benoit Lestang, a young man who “had just left high school and only dreamed about bloody make-ups and gore”, devised the crude makeup effects. The effects are functional but finally cheapen the film, unlike The Grapes of Death where the gore seemed more organic to the story.

Rollin and his crew suffered all kinds of problems throughout the filming of The Living Dead Girl including being underfed throughout to having a camera stolen on set, a real downfall as parts of the film had to be redubbed later. Struggling to finish the film, Rollin finally credited editor Janette Kronegger as being a bit of a savior and admitted that, "without her The Living Dead Girl would never have been finished."

Competently photographed by Max Monteillet and scored beautifully by Philippe d'Arme, The Living Dead Girl is a valuable work despite its faults. The final sequence alone, featuring a series of startling close-ups of Pierro and Blanchard before one of the most savage endings in all of horror cinema, stands as a great testament to the genius of Jean Rollin. One wishes the film as a whole could have sustained this type of poetic hysteria...

The Living Dead Girl has been available on several different home video versions with varying quality. Far and away the best version is Encore's 3 disc (2DVDs and 1CD) set, a terrific collection containing commentary (by Blanchard), interviews, deleted scenes, a slideshow, the soundtrack and booklet. Featuring a beautiful quality print, the one drawback to Encore's disc is a framing issue that causes the subtitles to go off the screen on some widescreen sets. Worth seeking out for collectors is the laserdisc from the late nineties which contains an otherwise unavailable Rollin commentary track, the first he ever gave for one of his films.