Review: The Living Dead Girl, aka La Morte Vivante (dir. Jean Rollin, 1982)

La Morte Vivante

The Living Dead Girl (La Morte Vivante)
France, 1982
Director: Jean Rollin
Writers: Jacques Ralf, Jean Rollin

Review by N Emmett.

A group of grave-robbers get more than they bargained for when they open the coffin of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard), causing her to rise as a vampire and kill them. Catherine then heads back to her old home to meet her sister Helene (Marina Pierro).

As children, Helene and Catherine vowed that when one of them died, the other would follow immediately afterwards. Helene did not fulfil this promise, but she remains close to her undead sister – even going so far as to kill people so that Catherine can feed on their blood.

Jean Rollin had been making his own brand of vampire films since the sixties with pictures such as Les Frisson des Vampires, but with 1982’s La Morte Vivante (known under various English titles including The Living Dead GirlQueen Zombie, Lady Dracula and Scare: Dead or Alive) he adapts to the era of Tom Savini. The body horror begins with the film’s opening sequence, in which Catherine uses her sharp, lengthy fingernails to stab the eyes of one grave-robber and slit the throat of another (the third, meanwhile, has half his face burnt off following a mishap with some acid). The Living Dead Girl owes as much to the gut-munching zombie cycle as it does to the vampire genre – one scene in particular shows Catherine going well beyond neck-biting and indulging in out-and-out cannibalism.

livd3This preoccupation with blood and guts may mark a departure from his previous work, but it is    nonetheless hard to mistake The Living Dead Girl as the work of anyone other than Jean Rollin.

The director’s approach to his undead anti-heroine is characteristically quirky. Wandering around in her white funeral garb, Catherine initially resembles a typical Bloofer Lady; but when she interacts with her surroundings – by turning the pages of a book, for example – she loses all grace and behaves like a clumsy child.

The silent Catherine spends much of her time drifting through the settings like a sleepwalker, stopping to show rapt fascination with small details around her. As director, Rollin behaves much the livd2same way.

Like many of Rollin’s films, Living Dead Girl has a languid pace and is concerned less with building a solid narrative and more with finding strong images: Helene handing Catherine the body of a white dove from which to drink, the blood of a victim splashing onto a beloved music box from the sisters’ childhood.

One of the few sop to any kind of conventional formula is the presence of two hapless travellers who fall into the grip of the vampire. This American couple consists of a frankly annoying woman (played by Carina Baron, overacting to a painful degree) and her husband Mike Marshall). The latter character communicates with his wife in large part through a system of shrugs, eye-rolls and sarcastic barbs.

livd4This couple represents the concerns of the everyday world, and make for a sharp contrast with the bizarre figure of Helene. The vampire’s sister seems to live in her own little world entirely, and does not think twice about luring a passer-by to their death so that Catherine can feed – although she does show remorse after the act.

Like George A. Romero’s Michael, Living Dead Girl plays with the idea that its vampire is not supernatural at all: Catherine could conceivably be a woman who was buried alive, and whose strange behaviour is the result of trauma. On a symbolic level, the film can be read as the story of a young woman whose beloved relative has succumbed to mental illness. If we interpret it this way, however, then Living Dead Girl is a most pessimistic portrayal of the subject: Catherine has no hope of redemption, and as long as she lives, people around her will die.

livd1The Living Dead Girl definitely requires a degree of patience on the part of the audience. A lot of viewers will argue that Rollin has simply turned the camera on a pair of lethargic actresses, making up a paper-thin story along the way and throwing in some gore effects to top it off. But to those of us who take the time to tease out the subtexts that can be found below the strange images, Living Dead Girl is another intriguing film from Jean Rollin.