Color, 1980, 87m.
Directed by J.A. Lazer (Jean Rollin)
Starring Howard Vernon, Pierre Escourrou, Anouchka, Antonio Mayans, Nadine Pascale
Kino Lorber / Redemption (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Arrow (DVD) (UK R0 PAL0, Image (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Perhaps the single looniest offering ever from the sex-and-horror factory at the French company Eurociné, Zombie Lake is many things -- most of them completely insane-- but you certainly can't find it dull. Packed with acres of bare skin, softcore groping, a sentimental zombie dad, and splashes of unconvincing but plentiful gore, this one managed to rise from the depths of '80s VHS obscurity to become a crackpot cult item of the highest order.
A lakeside French town is under siege by Nazi zombies left over from World War II, starting with a beautiful young skinny dipper who gets pawed to death by the helmeted underwater fiends sporting military uniforms and bright green skin. The local mayor (Jess Franco regular Vernon) is distraught by the crime, which repeats itself when a gang of uninhibited female volleyball team decides to hop in the lake for a quick dip, too. Sweet little Helena (Anouchka, daughter of Eurociné head Daniel Lesoeur) deduces that the main blond zombie is actually the remnant of her dead soldier father, and the two form an unlikely bond as the entire town becomes zombie fodder.
Widely known as one of the fastest, cheapest, and most B-movie friendly European studios, Eurociné became a home for a wide variety of directors over the years. As with many of their titles, the authorship of Zombie Lake was infernally difficult to pin down over the years thanks to its directing credit for a "J.A. Lazer." Originally Jess Franco was slated to direct (and thus Howard Vernon was signed to head up the cast), but he was unable to shoot the film (and instead wound up doing Oasis of the Zombies for the studio instead).
The bulk of the film was handled by French erotic vampire specialist Jean Rollin, whose heart evidently wasn't in the project. However, the master's touch is still evident in some poetic gliding camera shots along the lake, some tender bits involving Helena, and even a funny extended Rollin cameo culminating in a bloody punchline. Franco fans will be especially amused by the weird repurposing of Daniel White's haunting score for Female Vampire, which once again becomes the catalyst for a rampage of erotic horror. No sane human being would ever rank Zombie Lake (or Lake of the Living Dead as it was sometimes shown in Europe) with either Franco or Rollin's best, but completists will find this oddly endearing cinematic mutation worth a peek.
Zombie Lake first haunted video stores for years in one of those great oversized VHS boxes from Wizard Video, complete with a killer piece of cover art and a very bogus tagline. The transfer was fuzzy and not very attractive, but it was decent for its time. Things improved considerably in 2001 with a DVD release from Image, anamorphically enhanced but measing closer to 1.78:1 than the 1.66:1 aspect ratio listed on the box. The video quality was great for its time, complete with the same old cruddy English dub track as well as the far superior and almost lyrical French version (albeit without subtitles, which obviously limits that audience). Along with the saucy European theatrical trailer, this includes the expected alternate clothed versions of the two major nude scenes (the opening swim, the volleyball sequence, and another quick bit in a bar) which have turned up on some alternate tape versions over the years. Most of these are quite funny, as the formerly skinny dipping girls now decide to get their long white dresses all soggy in the lake instead.
Of course, after the films of Chesty Morgan hit Blu-Ray it was clear all bets were off as far as deciding which films merit the leap to HD. Sure enough, here's Zombie Lake looking so clean, crisp, and clear it's ridiculous. The negative has obviously been kept in nearly pristine shape, and while the production values certainly still look the same (including the, uh, "impressionistic" makeup), few could have ever predicted this film could look so gorgeous. You get both the English and French tracks in PCM two-channel mono, but in a very welcome gesture, optional English subtitles are also offered for the French version. It's a very different experience in many ways since that track was assembled with far, far more care, giving the film a sense of fairy tale sadness almost obliterated completely in the unintentionally hysterical English dub. It also helps that most of the actors (Vernon excepted) were obviously performing their roles in French, too. The two major alternate clothed scenes are included again (the opening and volleyball bits) but this time in HD, along with the alternate English opening credits (the French ones are included on the main feature), both the English and French Zombie Lake trailers, and bonus trailers for Oasis of the Zombies, The Rape of the Vampire, and Demoniacs. If you're a Zombie Lake fan (and come on, admit it, you know you are deep down), there's no way this could get any better.