The cinematic world of Jean Rollin often seems like a recondite collection of endlessly reoccurring hermetic tropes that are constantly being rearranged and expounded upon for the edification of the select few 'who understand'. Creepily silent clowns and winsome lesbian vampires. Pristine 19th century Chateaux, crumbling castle ruins and the bucolic serenity of the French countryside: all these features reappear again and again in Rollin's mythical fairy tale world of highly charged eroticism and existential longing. This combining of eroticism with a dreamy poetic sensibility is a feature shared by many of the works of Spanish-born cult filmmaker Jess Franco, of course; but Rollin's best films often leaven the dark atmosphere with a strain of timeless romance that rubs up incongruously against the more exploitative elements of the films.
1982's "The Living Dead Girl" was an interesting (though probably misconceived) attempt to bring some commercial nous to the gentle, dreamlike stratagems of the average Rollin story-line. The quintessential elements are present and correct, as per usual: sparse dialogue and a minimalist, ambient synth score; a dreamlike landscape populated by a phalanx of sultry soft-core French starlets; and a faint tint of same gender romance (although, curiously, there are no lesbian sex scenes in this particular example of the genre!). But Rollin works his usual magic around a story-line that plays out as though it were contrived to appeal to a stereotypical 'gorehound' crowd. The ubiquitous sylphlike vampires are here replaced with a beautiful, ghostlike flesh-eating zombie girl, while the plot soon resolves itself into a conventional, quasi-slasher body count epic - replete with laughably crude outbursts of Fulci-esque eye violence!
Trading on the Romero inspired horror movie obsession with zombies, the plot starts off with a truckload of gangly workmen offloading some beat-up drums of toxic waste in the vaults beneath the Valmont Chateau, situated just outside a secluded village deep in the French countryside. While investigating these unusually well-lit environs, they discover two coffins containing the corpses of Madame Valmont and her beautiful blonde daughter Catherine, respectively. Adding grave robbing to their crimes against the environment, the gang relieve Madam Valmont's remains of her jewelry. But unfortunately, an impromptu earthquake causes one of the drums to spill its contents all over the ground. Overpowering fumes steam out, and have the unforeseen (and rather unlikely) effect of bringing Catherine (why not Madam Valmont?) back from the dead! Her first act is to claw out the eyes of one of the looters, with fingernails extended and sharpened by their two years of posthumous growth (a widely believed 'factoid' which is - in fact - quite mythical!)
While wandering around the countryside in a catatonic haze, the pale, diaphanous figure of Catherine (Francoise Blanchard of "Amazons In The Temple Of Gold" ) is sighted by a couple of foreign tourists, Greg and Barbara Simon (Mike Marshall and Carina Barone). Barbara takes a photograph of the strange girl and becomes ever more curious about her identity. But after her trance-like perambulation around the grounds Catherine returns to the Chateau, guided by some faint traces of memory in her dead-alive brain. Unfortunately, the estate agent currently in charge of finding a buyer for the place (the interior of which looks as though it has been kept under glass as an immaculate, un-lived-in museum-piece to the 18th Century, with portraits and statuettes of Marie Antoinnete adorning numerous walls and mantles), has chosen this particular evening to bring her lover back for some after hours rumpy pumpy in the drawing room! Some starkly rendered soft core fumblings soon dissolve into a grizzly bloodbath of throat gouging and guzzling cannibalism which terminates with the naked bloodied body of the estate agent lying spread-eagled on the front steps of the chateau, where it is soon discovered by the present owner!
The owner turns out to be beautiful raven haired Helene (Marina Pierro, a regular in sex-charged outpourings by cult director Walerian Borowczyk, such as "Behind Convent Walls"  ): a childhood friend of Catherine who was never made aware that the girl had died. It turns out that the pair had a friendship that was a little more intense than most childhood bondings. In flashback we see the two as children, making a blood pledge and declaring undying love for each other. Some memory must still linger on in Catherine's mind, for she neither pokes out Helene's eyes or attempts to gouge her throat with her bloody fingernails. Instead, she sits forlornly, totally naked at the piano, beside the ravaged corpse of the estate agent's lover, lightly pressing at random piano keys.
After the shock of this unexpected reunion, something long suppressed seems to have been waked in Helene's heart. Dormant passions are re-ignited. Soon Helene descends from opening her own veins to feed her soul mate's constant thirst for human blood (referencing their childhood blood pact) to procuring unknowing victims to join Catherine in the vaults for her next flesh meal. Helene will sink to any depths in order to cling on to this physical idealisation of her love - despite Catherine's growing awareness of her own unenviable state and the consequent unbearable guilt that accompanies it! Meanwhile, after finding out that Catherine Valmont and the figure in her photograph are probably one and the same, Barbara makes her way back to the Chateau only to have her initial suspicions confirmed, but also a near-fatal run-in with Helene - by now psychotic in her desire to protect Catherine.
It's true that the blood and grue are piled on, here, in a crude fashion compared to most of Rollin's films - many of which are near bloodless. But while the cheap make-up effects and thin, watery, fake blood may not have had their intended effect of wowing the Fulci fans and gore freaks, Rollin holds on to the elements that make his films so unique. The pacing is languid and sedate and the simple story concentrates on delicately adumbrating the strange unnatural relationship of dependency that quickly develops between the two beautiful women at its centre, which brings, as is so common with Rollin's films, a disturbing confluence of death and sex. The ending achieves the presumed objective of drenching everything in fountains of blood while remaining poignant, tragic and unnerving in a way that is rare in such low budget exploitation fare. The film was never going to make much of a dent on the commercial horror market, but it succeeds admirably on its own terms despite the apparent concessions to traditional narrative brought by the inclusion of the two tourists' rather lame investigations.
Redemption's new DVD features a fairly nice transfer, but it is disappointing to see that the disc is not anamorphic - especially when one remembers that the luxurious Encore DVDs are also available these days! The disc does includes Rollin's early '60s short film "Les pays Lions" though: a Kafka-esque SF tale set among some cramped Parisian back-streets and underdeveloped bomb sites.