... aka: Lake of the Zombies
... aka: Nazi Zombies: Terror from Below
... aka: Sumpf der lebenden Toten (Swamp of the Living Dead)
... aka: Zombie Lake
... aka: Zombies Lake
"J.A. Laser" (Jean Rollin)
Ever since Romero redefined the zombie as reanimated flesh-eating corpses in 1968, some of our more ambitious directors have sought to either elaborate on his creation or to explore all of the metaphorical possibilities inherent in creatures that are, at the end of the day, essentially just reflections of ourselves. And then you have directors like Jean Rollin, who utilizes the zombie as a excuse to show naked girls swimming and thrashing around in the water to give viewers as many spread eagle shots as possible. Sorry to sound so crude, but it is what it is, folks! Zombie Lake frequently tops lists of "Worst Zombie Movie of All Time" and, while it truly is bad, it probably no longer deserves to be on such a list thanks to all of the no budget digital crap being made nowadays. At least this was shot on film in a nice-looking French village instead of being "filmed" with someone's iPhone in their backyard. Hey, I'm grasping at straws here!
The entire tone for Lake is set in the opening few minutes as a young lady strips to sunbathe nude as the camera slowly pans up the entire length of her body. Now the poor thing is all hot and sweaty. What's a girl to do? Well, if you're this girl, you're going to take a refreshing dip in the lake... and you're not going to let some stupid warning sign featuring the drawing of a swimmer next to a skull and crossbones deter you either! Needless to say, that turns out to be a mistake as she's attacked and pulled under by a green-faced, one-eyed zombie. Having not had his fill, the same ghoul decides to kill a woman doing her laundry, which proves that, yes, these zombies will also attack women wearing clothes. Townspeople find the second victim's body and leave it on the doorstep of the Mayor (Howard Vernon) as a none-too-subtle way to say "Uh, would you please do something about this?" He promises help is on its way.
Chatty reporter Katya Muse (Marcia Sharif) shows up in town to do some research in hopes of writing "an unusual little yarn about that weird lake of yours." Local Mr. Chanac (Youri Radionow) takes her to visit the Mayor, who relates a flashback that explains the local legend. During WWII, a blonde-haired German soldier (Pierre-Marie Escourrou) was injured saving a female villager (Nadine Pascal) from a bomb. Eager to reward him for saving her life, the girl took him to a barn for a literal roll in the hay. She became pregnant, gave birth to a girl she named Helena and then died shortly thereafter. The soldier was then killed himself after his platoon was ambushed by villagers. In lieu of proper burial, the bodies were just sunk in the lake and the lake has been haunted by them ever since.
A very confused girl's sporting team, who arrive in a van with "Basket" written on the side then hop out and start hitting a volleyball around, provide both a full course meal for the zombies and a veritable beaver buffet via pervy underwater camera shots when they go skinny dipping. One lucky blonde (Gilda Arancio) manages to escape and runs back into town topless. Due to all the recent murders, disappearances and zombie sightings, the Mayor finally calls for police reinforcement but is sent two rude dimwits; Inspectors Moran ("Burt Altman" / Bertrand Altmann) and Spitz (the director), who tell him "murder is our business, not fairy tales" before going to the tavern to disregard the locals as a "heap of hicks." By the time they actually start believing the townsfolk, they're already dead.
After taking care of the inspectors, the zombies emerge to paint the village red during a mini rampage that includes killing a woman and her boyfriend as they're getting ready to bonk in the barn, a topless girl bathing outside in a tub and a woman walking down the sidewalk who stops to adjust her stocking. Despite now being a zombie, the blonde Nazi seen in the flashback manages to hunt down his daughter Helena, who's now about 12, being raised by her granny (Yvonne Dany) and is played by producer Daniel Lesoeur's daughter, Anouchka. The zombie dad gives her a necklace that belonged to her late mother and has such a soft spot for his girl that he protects her from the other zombies. When the Mayor pressures her to help, Helena decides to exploit her father's emotional attachment to lure the zombies to their napalm / flamethrower demise.
We'd be here all day if I did a detailed break down of all the continuity errors, flubs, extras looking at the camera and glimpses of crew and equipment that made their way into the finished product that is Zombie Lake. It would likewise take an eternity to accurately describe the ever-changing and decidedly non-water resistant green finger paint makeup that changes from shot to shot. This is a film where virtually everything - the direction, acting, editing, writing, fx - is on the same plane of terrible so it's difficult to concentrate on just one area. And to make matters worse, its shortcomings are further exacerbated by a cringe-worthy English dub more interested in matching lips than making sense.
But the real question is: Is this a good bad movie? To that I can only say, I once found this utterly boring but its sheer awfulness has grown on me a bit over the years and every now and then I actually find myself in the mood to watch this horrid thing again. That's more than I can say for many of the same director's meandering "arty" vampire movies that have gained him a small cult following over the years. I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that but, hey, I'm pretty much way past that point now.
Jesus Franco gets a co-writer credit and was supposed to direct it too but dropped out at the last minute. But don't feel cheated. He later got to direct his own awful zombie movie for Eurociné called Oasis of the Zombies. And despite not technically directing, a lot of other Franco world connections still remain. The war footage used in the flashbacks is pilfered from the Franco co-directed Convoy of Girls (1978), the Daniel White score has been swiped from Franco's Female Vampire (1973) and regular rotation Franco movie actors Vernon and "Robert Foster" / Antonio Mayans (playing a Nazi general and the zombie missing an eye; not the inspector as IMDb incorrectly states) both have prominent roles.
Throughout the video era, Zombie Lake was the easiest Rollin film to find here in America as it received a well-circulated 1985 VHS release from Wizard in one of their trademark eye-catching big boxes. Since then it's received a number of DVD releases (Image, Sinister and others) and, in 2013, made its Blu-ray debut on the Redemption label out of the UK. Alternate scenes of the female victims frolicking in their underwear instead of naked were used for release in more restrictive markets. Rollin himself hated the film and felt it an embarrassment.