We begin our year-long exercise in zombie cinema with THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (LA MORTE VIVANTE)--Jean Rollin's 1982 meditation on life, the endurance of friendship, and arterial spray--which remains his most successful work, both commercially and artistically.
The story involves Catherine Valmont (Francoise Blanchard), a young girl brought back to life by a cloud of toxic gas accidentally released by the three goons robbing her crypt (as well as dumping 55-gallon drums of contaminated waste--nobody multitasks like French hoodlums). No mere flesh-muncher, Catherine opts for gouging her fingernails into her would-be graverobbers' eyes and throats before wandering home to her family's estate. She reunites with her childhood friend Helene (Marina Pierro)--who, when they were children--vowed, "If you die first, I shall follow you." Rekindling their relationship, Helene proceeds to procure unwitting victims to sate the hunger of her undead friend, until a bickering American couple discovers their secret.
Despite the usual trappings of horror film--torchlit tombs, the lonely decrepit castle--and the often shocking bursts of violence and gore, Rollin seems more concerned with the relationship between his two protagonists. Although it's never made clear the exact nature of that relationship, Helene's unconditional acceptance of Catherine's state and her near-obsessive compliance in providing her victims (not to mention her somewhat melodramtic childhood vow), suggests that their friendship was more than platonic. Rollin laudably underplays their history, opting instead to focus on the tragic nature of their situation--that inevitably, despite Helene's devotion, their friendship cannot be.
That tragic quality is most effectively conveyed by Blanchard's performance, portraying the undead Catherine as a child reborn, who gradually learns who she was and what she's become. By the third act she begins to embody the tragic figure of the classic monster (think the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's creature) as she's consumed by guilt over what she is. She yearns to be dead again, telling Helene, "I'm evil." (One aspect that the film seems to neglect is the nature of evil; I thought Catherine was more a victim of circumstance than a figure of evil; even Helene, who has no qualms about sending people to their deaths at Catherine's hand, can't be easily dismissed as "evil"--she's merely doing what any committed friend would do in her situation.)
The doomed inevitability of the story comes to a head as the American couple, who've photographed the undead Catherine roaming the countryside, start asking questions around the village. (Perhaps this is just French-phobic paranoia, but I find it curious that Rollin chose a pair of annoying, troublesome Americans to seal his characters' fate.) After discovering the girls' secret, they're gruesomely dispatched by Helene as a distraught Catherine attempts to drown herself. Helene rescues her, but Catherine--unable to be anything but an undead figure hungry for human flesh--holds Helene true to her vow in a stunning tableax of bloodshed, their tragic ending finalized.
THE LIVING DEAD GIRL is a film that should appeal to arthouse aficianados and gorehounds alike. Though the pace is deliberate and the scenes of violence infrequent, Rollin's dream-like method of filmmaking, as well as the beautiful pastoral setting, makes for a thoroughly mesmerizing experience. Don't miss it.