When some unscrupulous men are dropping off a barrel of chemical waste in a tomb beneath a local mansion who’s occupants had passed away and been interned in another room of the tomb, they decided to open up the caskets of the mother and her daughter in order to steal the jewelry they were buried with. Unfortunately for them, after they had opened the caskets, there was an earthquake, causing one of the barrels to fall, which caused it to rupture and spill its contents into the tomb. While the mother’s corpse wasn’t affected by this, the daughter, who looked to be in her early twenties and was still somehow fresh as a daisy even though we find out later that she’d been dead for two years, comes back to life and kills the man who opened her casket. Soon, all three men were dead, as were the real estate lady who was trying to sell the mansion, and her boyfriend who came to stay with her there for the weekend.
The girl’s name is Catharine, and in her youth, she had a best friend named Helene. They were closer than sisters and had a very deep love for one another, to the point where they even became blood sisters, and Helene pledged that if Catharine were to die first, she would follow. One day, for some inexplicable reason, Helene calls the mansion, and Catharine, who can’t yet speak and is still rather zombie like, knocks the phone off the hook and opens a music box that the two of them loved as children. Even though no one spoke, Helene recognized the song immediately and headed quickly out to the mansion. There she found the dead real estate lady and her boyfriend…and a bloody Catharine. She didn’t know what was going on, but helped her friend by hiding the bodies and cleaning her up. Catharine, showing some slight signs of recognition, didn’t try to kill Helene, and once Helene figured out what was happening to her friend, she decided to help her by getting her more people to feast upon. The more people Catharine fed on, the more she came back to her old self. She could speak more and was thinking more clearly, but this turned out to be a curse, as she realized what an evil thing she had become and just wanted to die. She even refused to feed upon the final victim that Helene had brought her. What will become of these best friends? Will Catharine ever become her old self again? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
This film was my first experience with a Jean Rollin film. After reading the back and seeing that Rollin had almost interrupted the take on the final intense scene out of concern for the mental health of the actress, I was pretty excited to see the film. Therein lies the problem. You should never go into a film with expectations, because if it doesn’t meet up to them, you’re going to be even more disappointed than you otherwise would have been. While this film wasn’t horrible and it did in fact have some nice aspects to it, I was disappointed with it for a variety of reasons.
First, it’s really a one trick pony with a couple of side characters that keep getting some focus, even though they really end up having very little to do with the plot. What do I mean by a one trick pony? Well basically, she comes to life, she kills, she eats, she walks around in a confused haze, her friend shows up, helps her get new victims, rinse and repeat. The only nice variation to this is how she becomes more and more coherent throughout the film. I did think that was a nice touch.
Second, the gore. I don’t know what the standards were in that country at that time, but this was WAY after Herschel Gordon Lewis came out with Blood Feast and introduced the world to the first true gore film, and there were many more made after that. The gore in this film was really quite weak compared to what it could have been, and as such, it lessened the impact of the killing and feeding scenes.
Third, Catharine was able to poke her fingers right into people’s throats like they were made of paper. Seriously, I don’t know if you’ve ever poked someone, but good luck trying to poke your fingers through someone’s flesh, much less doing it in such a way that you get full penetration to the point where you can actually kill someone. It’d have been more believable if she’d have snapped their necks or crushed their windpipes or found some other way to kill them by biting out chunks of their flesh. This finger in the throat thing, while it was kind of cool, was just bordering on ridiculous the way it was presented.
Fourth, she’d been dead two years in that coffin, and even though she was protected from the elements and the vermin, she certainly wouldn’t have come out of it looking all hot and beautiful. It would have been far better to have her come out of it looking slightly mummified or something and then to refresh her appearance as she killed people. This would have worked far better, and made it all much more interesting.
Fifth, the two side characters they kept going back to, this French actress/photographer and her boyfriend really had almost nothing to do with the plot except to reveal to the viewer the fact that Catharine had been dead for over two years. Other than that, they mostly just took up screen time and lengthened out the film with real contributions to the plot. This again is why I say the film is a one trick pony. It’s all about Helene, Catharine and the victims. There’s nothing else going on that’s of any real importance.
Lastly, that final scene that was supposedly almost stopped out of consideration for the mental well being of the actress. I’m sorry, but…what? They must have one hell of a lot lower threshold for what constitues extreme, or for what would damage someone’s mental health. There wasn’t anything worse here than you’d have seen in Night of the Living Dead really, plus, she didn’t tear into it like some ravenous animal. It was all very slow and methodical, and almost boring. After the build up about how horrible it was, I expected a lot more.
Now, as to what worked in the film…
I liked the relationship between Catharine and Helene. That small spark of recognition Catharine had, which grew as she became more and more coherent, was a really nice way to handle the relationship between the two, and something you don’t typically see in zombie style films. I did find Helene’s sudden lack of morals in procuring victims for Catharine to be somewhat strange, but I tried not to think too much about it.
I also really loved the increasing levels of coherence in Catharine. It took her from basically walking around slowly with this blank look on her face, to a character you will find yourself actually pulling for, hoping that she’ll make it back to full consciousness. She’s not evil. She initially acts on pure instinct, but as she becomes more coherent, she begins to be revulsed by what she’s done and yet, it’s a constant struggle for her at that point to fight the urges that her instincts contine to drive her to.
The settings in the film were absolutely beautiful. The mansion the main bulk of the film takes place in is really beautiful, albeit a little run down after not having been lived in for two years. The outside grounds and countryside are equally as beautiful, and the local village felt homey, rustic and inviting. The tomb under the mansion was quite creepy, and worked very well as a setting for the coffins, though I did find it strange that the coffins seemed to be just set in there with no decoration or anything, plus the mother and the daughter’s coffins were separated by a wall, which was something else that seemed odd to me.
The film was shot nicely and edited well, though the pacing did sort of bounce around between slow and normal. I won’t go so far as to say that some of the slower scenes should have been edited down, because I can see the impact that leaving them long and slow has on the whole feel of the film. This certainly wasn’t anywhere even close to as bad as what I had to endure in Rollin’s other film I reviewed here in this issue, Two Orphan Vampires, so I was pretty ok with the pacing of this one.
This release from Kino Lorber includes the following special features:
Mastered in HD from the original 35mm negative.
French with optional English subtitles.
Introduction by Jean Rollin.
Four featurettes by Daniel Gouyette:
"Jean-Pierre Bouyxou on La Morte Vivante"
"The Living Dead Girl: The American Version"
"Music by Philippe D’Aram"
"When I Was Seventeen: An Homage to Benoit Lestang"
Jean Rollin at Fantasia (2007)
Excerpt of an interview with Jean Rollin by Joshua T. Gravel.
12-Page booklet with an essay by Tim Lucas, editor of The Video Watchdog.
Original theatrical trailer.
Original trailers of nine other Rollin films.
In the end, all I can really say about it is that for me, it was just ok. There were things I liked about it, things that could have been done better, and it was missing some side elements to the plot that would have really fleshed it out and made it a better film. Would I watch it again? I don’t know. I guess if I was with someone and they wanted to see it, I wouldn’t have a problem watching it again. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to see it again though. Seeing it once is perfectly fine, and I have no problem recommending that you check it out just to see if it’s your cup of tea. How rewatchable it is for you after that will totally come down to personal tastes and preferences.
If you would like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the blu-ray or DVD from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.