I first read about the films of Jean Rollin in books about unusual horror films from around the world. I don’t think I had ever seen a review of any of his films in a regular review book. And I certainly had never seen copies of his movies on VHS or Beta at my local Video Zone back in the 1980s. My impression from these books was that Jean Rollin made artistic, perhaps erotic, movies about vampires. He also made hard core adult films, presumably to pay the bills. On occasion he made other types of films, but vampires seemed to be his main obsession.
While at university, I became a regular customer of Movie Village, a video store with an amazing selection of unusual films for rent (and purchase). This is where I first put my hands on a movie directed by Jean Rollin. Oddly enough, it was not a vampire film. And according to at least one book I had read, this particular movie was one of his lesser ones. It was called Night Of The Hunted (1980), and its description was something like this:
“Stylish, futuristically surreal and a departure from director Jean Rollin’s familiar vampire territory, The Night of the Hunted features a mass of people suffering with insanity and collective amnesia. Bizarre, even by Rollin’s standards, it still displays fairy tale qualities mixed with extremes of sadism, sex and violence.”
I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t one of his vampire films, but I wanted to see a Jean Rollin film, and my annual holiday movie marathon was in a few days, so I rented it.
The annual holiday movie marathon is a tradition that I established with my friend Brian many years ago. His job requires him to get up ridiculously early in the morning, so by 8:00 PM he’s having trouble staying awake. But every year he takes a couple of weeks off in December and that’s when we make a point of getting together to watch movies. And we are always on the lookout for unusual and interesting horror films.
I brought Night Of The Hunted to his place, along with about a dozen other movies, and explained to Brian that it was probably not going to be Jean Rollin’s best work, but it was all I could put my hands on, so we should give it a try. He agreed.
Well. We both really liked the movie. A lot. “I would buy a copy of that,” Brian said as the credits were rolling, which is amazing because I was thinking the exact same thing. “This is one his lesser films?”
Since that time, I have picked up Jean Rollin’s movies on DVD or Blu-ray whenever I could put my hands on them (for a reasonable price). I’ve only seen a couple of the vampire films, but the strange thing is that (so far) my favourites have been non-vampire films: Night Of The Hunted (of course), The Grapes Of Death (1978), and now, perhaps, The Living Dead Girl (1982).
The Living Dead Girl is almost like a vampire movie in some ways. It’s about an undead woman who seems to need to drink blood. Before I watched it, I was expecting more of a zombie story of sorts. I suppose she is a zombie, technically. But she has a lot more in common with vampires than the average reanimated rotting corpse. For one thing, she looks good. For another, she is an intelligent, thinking being who eventually talks and expresses regret over the things she has done. I’m not really comfortable calling her a zombie or a vampire. I think she is her own, unique creation of Jean Rollin.
The most basic description of the plot of The Living Dead Girl goes something like this:
Two bumbling fools dump toxic waste in a crypt and accidentally revive a beautiful, dead heiress who kills them and goes on a rampage.
This sounds like the plot of a Troma Team camp-fest (and more than a little like a play I once wrote called The Inner CIty Dead – minus the dead heiress), but it’s a much more serious affair than that. The heart of the film is the relationship between Catherine Valmont, the heiress, and her childhood friend Hélène. We see flashbacks of them as children, pledging eternal friendship. When Hélène discovers that Catherine is somehow still alive, she comes to the château to be with her. Hélène tries to keep Catherine alive, no matter what the cost. But Catherine begins to see herself as evil, and wants Hélène to help her die.
The surprising thing about The Living Dead Girl is how truly moving it is. You might come for the gore and the nudity, but you’ll stay for the emotional punch in the solar-plexus. And that’s a rare thing in exploitation filmmaking. I’m starting to suspect that’s it’s not such a rare thing for Jean Rollin, who seems to imbue his monsters with a sense of tragedy, and sadness. His movies aren’t for everyone, as they can be slow paced and challenging in many ways. But for those who are attuned to his particular style of storytelling, they can be very rewarding and cathartic experiences.
The Living Dead Girl (1982) makes for a more thoughtful, melancholy #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn than Angels’ Brigade or American Ninja 2, but that’s the nature of the beast. There are many different kinds of #NotQuiteClassicCinema, and I like to experience them all. I’m looking forward to my next Friday night with Jean Rolllin, but it won’t be right away. I need time to let The Living Dead Girl properly sink in. And at this moment, it’s hard to imagine how he will ever top it.