The withered, age-old “worst movie ever” question is a tale of perpetual unfinished business. It is far too intimately linked to personal fixation and context, far more so than any question of “best” or “greatest” film. Still, although we know the question really doesn’t get us anywhere, it is an enticing one. Especially because, in all frankness, movies seem to flock to it, and a handful put up a great argument for their claim to the holy grail of “worst film ever”. It becomes difficult to compare the “worst” movies between genres and sub-genres, but within close company, the differentials are more apparent. Take, for example, “zombie films”, a genre with more than a few wishful contenders for the title of “worst”. It is probably true that none are categorically the worst film ever made, but something about crawling flesh and rotting brains galvanizes the ineptitude of a film in an especially forthright, plain-spoken coating of badness. I’ve reviewed bad movies, but few feel as phantasmagorical in their patented ineptness as Zombie Lake. It doesn’t glance at badness, nor does it hint. It bellows at it head on, with charisma and a grubby, bilious doggedness. Ultimately, Zombie Lake’s flaws are as legion as they are incurable.
Let us throw a dart at random and land on the title characters themselves, the zombies. Here, they are red herrings, pushovers for a toxic plot (as toxic as the chemical peel masquerading as zombie makeup). Directors Jean Rollin and Julian de Laserna reveal a remarkable investment in a fake-out morality play about a small town stuck in perpetual limbo caused by the horrors of the past. Those horrors do take the form of everyone’s favorite double-barreled heavy, the Nazi zombie, but their physical state is merely a distraction for the film to unceremoniously invest in the haunted woes of the wallpaper it would call human. So much time is spent during WWII with the film running around this double-identity as both museum piece and horror film that the zombies usually seem like guests in their own movie, an issue only exacerbated by the hoarse, fluorescent confusion of the main “villagers-defeat-Nazis” plot line in the first place. The ten-years-later zombie material with the Nazis risen from the grave is an afterthought (incidentally, we are told it is ten years later, but with all the clothing running around, the movie’s idea of ten years post WWII seems suspiciously like 1980). With so much time spent in the olden days of the war as the Nazis invade the small town setting of the film and the villagers fight back, we have a movie that not only is a bad zombie movie but fails at being a bad zombie movie for most of its runtime. As to which is the lesser evil, I do not know.
Certainly, with zombies of this sort, driveling shambles with no zest of their own, it is hard to argue that it ought to have spent more time with the zombies themselves. These are putrescent monstrosities that play more like Sunday morning hangovers with green face paint than card-carrying members of the undead. They do not so much shamble with a stunted gait as meander and hide their faces from the camera (although with this makeup, we know why). When a zombie bites into a fresh victim’s neck, he gives a hickey instead, being ever so careful not to actually bite in, lest his face paint might smear off. Of all the flaws that Zombie Lake commits, the worst may be that the zombies themselves seem not proud of their brain-spilling crimson craft, but ashamed of it.
Even worse, the movie is zero for two in its titular ambitions; the lake is, sadly, a wash as well, although the movie is particularly fixated on underwater shots that provide what we are meant to think are accidental visions of naked women from particularly disgusting angles. The music in these sequences bears the unmistakably porn-ish tilt of muzak. But, for a film so fascinated with nudity, there is no hint of the perverse or the naughty; instead, it feels grotesque and detached, money-grubbing and functional and entirely lacking in charisma.
Which is, honestly, not the Jean Rollin touch we except. In 1980, the French Rollin was a reigning auteur of badness, a man who took from his southern friends in the more phantasmagoria-fixated region of Italy and combined no small portion of their slippery color fascination and abstraction-tinged horror with his own quintessentially French erotica. The melding practically invented the naturally flourishing, somewhat evasive lesbian vampire subgenre, but that superficial denomination does not capture his quixotic blend of art and schlock that was usually never less than invigorating. He was not a filmmaker of consummate, functional, business-like badness. The best exploitation movies are brimming with a gullible outsider-art effervescence, an outlaw innocence, and a wide-open field for them to careen down the unexplored path of their choosing, and Rollin filled out all the check-boxes with maddening ambition and specificity. But Zombie Lake sees Rollin taking his badness like his morning pill. His lukewarm combo of sex and death here doesn’t so much forge its own existence as direct down to the badness so many before had perfected. For this reason, Zombie Lake is the sort of movie that consistently gestures toward nasty-minded arousal, but it is so flat-footed and antiseptic that it cannot even comprehend why it wishes to be aroused in the first place. Not that it could feel pleasure if it really tried; it is too lonely and deadened to get a rise out of anything.
So how good is it really?: 0/5 (one for the stars)
But how “good” is it?: 3/5 (it is incomprehensibly bad, but as to whether it is “good” bad or “bad” bad, you have to decide on a scene-by-scene basis)