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August 06, 2005

Zombie Double Feature

Dawn of the Dead
Zack Snyder - 2004
Universal Region 1 DVD

Zombie Lake
Le Lac des Morts Vivants
Jean Rollin - 1981
Image Region 1 DVD

A bit over a week ago, my significant other and I caught the last half hour of a movie called All Souls Day on the SciFi Channel. It was pretty obvious that this was a George Romero inspired zombie movie that took place in Mexico. Once again you had characters trying to outwit and outrun slow moving zombies. I mentioned to S.O. that a contributor to cinematical.com wrote that he felt the reason why Romero's recent Land of the Dead wasn't a hit was because most film audiences prefer the new fast moving zombies as seen in the remake of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. The writer may have a point there. In Romero's defense, I think Universal could have promoted Land of the Dead better, rather than sticking it into theaters rapidly as a way of staunching their losses from Cinderella Man.
In any event, my S.O. encouraged me to look a little closer at zombies past and present.

While I'm not an expert on zombie movies, I have seen all of Romero's Dead films. I liked the recent Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. It's been decades since I last saw White Zombie (the movie, not the band) or I Walked with a Zombie, two older classics of the genre. I've also seen a couple of Lucio Fulci's zombie movies, but frankly, I'm not enthusiastic about Fulci's propensity for eyeball gouging.

I enjoy French cheese (the food), and I enjoy the cinematic fromage of Jean Rollin. I first learned about Rollin from a White Zombie, Rob, who's song Living Dead Girl is the title of one of Rollins better known films. Usually Rollin makes films about lesbian vampires who extremely sheer lingerie. In Zombie Lake, Rollin cobbled a slapdash story about Nazi zombies. The film has plot holes, continuity errors, and actors who are clearly embarrassed to seen in this mess.

Zombie Lake begins with a young woman tossing away a sign that indicates that a certain lake is to be undisturbed. Swimming nude, her presence awakens zombies in World War II era German uniforms. Zombie soldiers start emerging from the lake to eat the villagers of a small French town. The mayor explains to a reporter that the soldiers were shot by villagers and tossed into the lake. According to the mayor, scenes of black magic and witchcraft occurred at the lake. I should point out that the DVD has two audio tracks, French with NO subtitles, and an English language dub. Now I don't know if the film would have made any more sense with a better dub or with accurate subtitles, but even if one can gloss over the plot point of a cursed lake, another major plot point makes even less sense. One of the village women decides she would rather "collaborate" with a handsome, very Aryan soldier, than "resist" him. The woman later dies giving birth to a baby girl. During the present day scenes, the child of the soldier meets her zombie father. Maybe I'm being picky here, but I like some logic in my zombie movies. As best as I can tell, Zombie Lake takes place during the year it was filmed, about thirty-five years after the end of World War II. The daughter of the village woman and the soldier appears to be no older than twelve! Much of the lack of logic in Zombie Lake may be attributed to a screenplay by Jesus Franco, the man of many pseudonyms. Depending on one's point of view, the prolific Franco's films are surrealistic or incomprehensible or both.

Maybe Rollin was as embarrassed as the woman seen trying to stifle laughter in one scene. The director's credit goes to J.A. Laser. The Franco connections include frequent Franco star Howard Vernon as the mayor. The trippy score, kind of like John Cage doing lounge music, was by longtime Franco collaborator Daniel White. Zombie Lake lacks the intellectual pretensions of Rollin and the flat out loopiness of Franco. I give it a barely passing grade simply because this film is as funny as it is inept.

To put a more contemporary spin on it, Zombie Lake reminded me of Uwe Boll's House of the Dead. The difference is that in Zombie Lake, the underwater scenes are obviously shot in somebody's pool, and the zombie masks don't always fit. On the plus side, the full nudity of Zombie Lake is something Boll can only dream about.

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead is more problematic for me. The story is essentially the same with a small group of people trapped in a shopping mall, surrounded by flesh eating zombies. I liked an early scene when Sarah Polley's daughter, a recently transformed zombie, takes a bite out of Dad. Dad turns into a zombie and chases Polley into the bathroom. Once Polley escapes from her zombie husband, the film becomes less interesting. I admit that fast running zombies are scarier than zombies that just stumble and stagger. But with even with a bigger budget, Snyder has far less to say.
Romero's Dead films have always been understood to be about more than zombies. While one could enjoy his films as energized genre entries, the social commentary has always been to clear to miss. While Romero's Dawn of the Dead was a parody of consumer culture, Snyder's Dawn is just a bunch of people trapped in a shopping mall, fighting off zombies. There's a depth to Romero's humans and zombies that Snyder's version completely lacks.

While watching Dawn of the Dead, I listened to the director's commentary. A couple of times, Snyder complains that he was working with low budget and short shooting schedule. According to imdb.com, the budget was about 28 million dollars, and shooting took about three months. Universal was much more generous with Snyder in his first feature than they were with veteran Romero. Land of the Dead was produced for the more modest sum of 18 million dollars, with better known actors taking pay cuts to work with the beloved Romero. The zombies of George Romero may be slow moving, but the movies of George Romero have a lot of heart.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 6, 2005 03:38 PM