Updated: Jun 5
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Zombie Lake (1981, directed by Jean Rollin)
With guest reviewer Mer Whinery
Jonathan Raab: I have so many questions. What’s your history with this movie? Why’d you subject me to… to whatever it was I just watched?
Mer Whinery: I first encountered this oddity back when I was probably around twelve-ish. That would make it 1983. This was the Platinum Age of VHS and video rental stores. We had this video store in my hometown called Nite Owl Video, and for years it was the only rental place in town.
Now, this was McAlester, Oklahoma and not Tulsa. The kind of flicks that came our way were often the underside of the barrel bottom. Like the grimy shit you would scrape off that barrel bottom.
The best of these trashtastic turds arrived in the form of a big box cover, and the box would be this glossy and garish number designed to get your attention. The images on the front usually involved tits and blood and were obviously directed at a target audience of me and my friends. Two of the biggest distributors of this rancid output were Lightning and Wizard Video. This was the only sort of entertainment these companies put out. Such notable titles I saw in the format were heavily butchered Fulci films, City of the Walking Dead (aka Nightmare City), Alien Prey and… Zombie Lake.
I think it was the cover art that got me. It reminded me of the cover of another undead Nazi
movie I like called Shock Waves, which I think Zombie Lake was trying to rip off.
The first few minutes I got to see boobies. I was sold. It’s a repeat player for sure.
I chose this because I was pretty sure you had never seen it. It’s really transcendent with how godawful it is.
JR: I wouldn’t put this on the same level of Nightmare City, which is far and away a more competent movie, but I won’t deny that this film is very entertaining, mostly because of how baffling it is.
You mentioned the nudity—and, yeah, it’s got a ton of that, as every ten minutes or so another woman is taking her top off and going skinny dipping in the titular Zombie Lake, aka Lake of the Damned, aka the most disgusting water I’ve ever seen. Usually the boobs are followed by the emergence of the zombies—schlubby actors in green makeup that is running off their skin, and wearing Nazi uniforms. The film barely tries to explain how it is these undead Nazi bastards are able to return to life, and, if I was inclined to give this movie any credit, I’d say that contributes to the dream-logic and nightmare atmosphere. Instead I’d attribute those characteristics to what I can only assume is a complete and utter lack of a shooting script.
MW: You said titular. Hehehe.
JR: I was hoping someone would catch that.
MW: Seriously though. I attribute the quality of the atmosphere to the director, Jean Rollin. This was characteristic for most of his cinematic output. He cranked out mostly erotic lesbian vampire flicks, all of them well worth your time. I believe when this film first came out he released it under another name. It was definitely a paycheck movie for him, although Good Lord it had to have been like thirty bucks and a case of Natty Light at the most. The Spanish director Jess Franco was the original captain of this leaky vessel, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with this. Probably would have turned out much worse, as this was near the end of Franco’s artistic heyday. I think that died with his muse, Soledad Miranda.
Ah, the makeup. That, and the fact the film has an utter disregard for annoying things such as the laws of time and narrative cohesion are what struck me the most. Even as a kid, stuffing my face with nachos and RC Cola, I was baffled by this. But I was also drawn to it. This was seriously weird stuff for that time. Movies like this—Nightmare City, Gates of Hell—all had a serious impact on me creatively.
JR: I definitely felt like I was watching a “Mer Whinery” movie, for sure, as it’s gratuitous, violent, and over the top—although those are generally good qualifiers for your work. In this film’s case, those things kept it entertaining, even when the “violence” was just the zombies popping a squib pack on some victim’s neck.
Personally I couldn’t follow what the hell was going on, and I was paying attention. There’s a plot involving one of the zombie-Nazis falling in love with a local woman after the worst battle scene ever filmed, their daughter, his death at the hands of resistance fighters, those same resistance fighters not aging at all in the 40 years since, rumors of devilry and black magic, a college women’s basketball team, a news reporter who dies for no reason, a zombie-on-zombie fight that’s completely pointless, and the daughter of the Nazi trapping the zombies by offering them blood in a barn that is promptly torched by a flamethrower. What the hell, man.
Also, is it just me, or does the film portray the Nazis as the good guys, and the resistance/townsfolk as reaping what they’ve sown?
That seems like a lot, and it is, but that implies that any of this adds up to anything, which it doesn’t, not really. But at the end of all of this I have to say that I had a lot of fun watching this flaming garbage pile, and I would seek out the director’s other works. It’s an exploitation film held together by fraying duct tape, but it’s worth a watch. Final thoughts?
MW: Yeah I still don’t get it. I don’t care either. It’s fine. The zombie vs zombie fracas was basically just some dude came up with the idea “Hey, we have 10 mins to pad this sumbitch up with. These zombies getting into tussle might be rad.” Kinda like the shark vs. zombie scenario in Zombie. Is it necessary? No. Neato? Yes. Same thing with all the useless T&A. Give them what they want, and they will come.
Zombie Lake is most definitely a product of its time. It kinda dwells in that dim shadowland between incoherent and unsettling. Another similar film is Burial Ground. Wow, talk about craptastic. The intention of these monstrosities was just to simply make money. Fast money. Like, just quickly make enough money for Rollin to enjoy a week in Thailand, pay off the studio’s organized crime benefactors, and then forget about it. This was the primary goal of most filmmakers who worked in the direct-to-video market of the 80s/90s. It don’t have to be good, it just needs to tickle the peculiarities of that target audience. What’s funny is some of these films actually turned out to be more than decent. Of course, this isn’t one of them.
It definitely holds a special place in my past. I watch it and I am immediately transported back to that time and place I first encountered it. Sounds weird, but I find watching it oddly comforting, although the sensible adult in me is shaking his head going, “Wow, this really is just utter pig shit.”
Mer Whinery was born and bred in southeast Oklahoma… aka Little Dixie. He frequently dreams of empty, lonely houses filled with screaming ghosts. He is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show, Phantasmagoria Blues and Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.