Ok, just take a look a look at that cover. Is this not the best cover for any film ever? It has absolutely everything: the hoards of fiendish decaying zombies, a grave, the spooky old dark house, a full moon, bats, the amazing candy colours, a beautiful & probably naked woman, dripping blood, & a title including both the word “Virgin”, & the phrase “Living Dead”. By the looks of that, this should be the best film ever! Unfortunately, that expectation is tempered slightly by the other words on the cover: the phrase “Directed by Jess Franco”. For the film inside the case is not the same one as the cover promises unfortunately, & it’s not hard to imagine many people being very disappointed by the film you actually get. That’s a shame, because this is a fun & atmospheric little curio with plenty of interest.
It opens very promisingly, with a great title sequence as Christina (the beautiful & often naked Christina von Blanc) drives up to her family home in British Honduras for the reading of her father’s will, accompanied by Bruno Nicolai’s inventive score with weird percussive effects leading into a propulsive rhythm & a seriously groovy bass-line. For a moment, you think that this may just be the film that the cover promises. But it then takes a more reflective turn, & instead operates as a neatly off-balancing & vaguely disconcerting atmospheric ghost story. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the film is a deliberately vague, surreal & arty dreamscape, or just plain inept. Personally, I lean towards the former, although many will find the film to be a maddeningly weird, obscure & nonsensical piece exercise in non-narrative. Certainly, the film has a surreal, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness feel, which is almost as though Franco is refusing to show what is actually happening, but instead showing bizarre frescos, visual representations of the physical world. Nothing is quite what it seems, & the borders of reality and sanity are unclear. It’s not clear what’s actually happening for much of the film, & even when it ended I have to say I’m still not sure quite what much of it actually meant. Crucially though, even if the actual meaning is unclear, the feelings & effects that the film has on the viewer remain fascinating, & disturbing. Franco really shows that he has a great eye for disquieting images, such as the Mass (or similar) being conducted whilst one girl is painting her toenails, & another smoking a cigarette, or the sudden splashes of red. There is also a rich vein of dark comedy running through the film, including the director’s customary cameo as the strange, sleazy servant who speaks only in grunts, & snores all the way through the reading of the will.
Whilst the film is reasonably entertaining for much of it’s running time, it’s not until the final 20 minutes that it really begins to come together, starting with a strange incident involving a huge black dildo mysteriously appearing in Christina’s room. From hereon, it’s entirely unclear how much is dream, how much real, & how much madness, & where all of the most memorable images appear as Christina is plagues by the recurrent dreams of her hanged father, & by visions of The Queen of Darkness, a strange woman dressed in black. One scene with her in particular carries a strangely devastating emotional impact that the rest of the film has not prepared you for. Like many Franco films (particularly of this period), it has a downbeat & fatalistic conclusion.
Perhaps the film’s biggest achievement is in its amazing utilization of sound & music. During this time, it almost seems as though there was a competition going on between the Italian composers to see who could produce the most inventive music, & Nicolai wrote an amazing score for this film. There’s some amazing writing for percussion, with all kinds of weird effects echoing around during the more creepy moments, building into driving rhythms at other times. He does a neat line in groovy bass lines that propel the film on during key scenes, whilst the most memorable music is the gorgeous vocal lines associated with The Queen of Darkness. If this isn’t actually Morricone’s favoured collaborator Edda Dell’Orso singing, then the vocalist does an impressive approximation. But more than just the score, the sound effects are used quite brilliantly too, to off-balancing effect that can’t let you relax. Sometimes the sounds play against the actually images, seemingly unrelated to what’s onscreen. Other times, they’re grossly exaggerated with weird echoing voices calling, & insects buzzing filling the soundscape.
As ever with Franco, there are caveats. The pacing does start to drag slightly in the first hour, the zoom lens is over-used, & the acting is “interesting”. But if you’ve got a taste for these kinds of films, then you’ll be taken that as a given, & Virgin Among the Living Dead is worth checking out for EuroShock fans. It’s a strange & surreal little film that doesn’t make too much conventional sense but does linger in the memory.
I’ve been watching the UK DVD from Arrow films, which is a version of the film running at about 75 minutes. The PAL picture is – well, it’s there. Unfortunately the source materials Arrow had to work with weren’t too great, & the result is not nearly as good as their releases of Female Vampire or Dr. Jekyll’s Mistresses. It is not much improved over the now old (& now OOP) UK VHS from Redemption, but it’s certainly watchable enough, & I’m glad Arrow have managed to get this thing out on disc at all. Weirdly, the picture is lifted up slightly, so that the subtitles all drop into the black bar at the bottom when watching on my 4:3 TV – I can’t say how this will look on a widescreen TV. The audio is French (with English subs), which is definitely preferable to a dubbed version. It’s a decent enough track, but again the poor source means it’s not anything special. Sadly, Arrow have included no extras beyond chapter selection, but this disc is still well worth investigating for EuroHorror fans new to the film. And you do get that cover. I just can’t stop looking at it, staring in wonder, and dreaming of a day in the future when someone will make the film to go with it.
Note: Heavily edited versions of this film have apparently circulated with footage from Rollin’s Zombie Lake spliced in (although that could be a misconception due to stills from that films appearing on the box for that release) – Arrow have done the right thing & released Franco’s original version, uncut by the BBFC. Rumours are that a rape sequence was also shot, but that’s not present here, & does not seem to be currently available on DVD.