I don’t know where horror fans got the idea that “you can’t go wrong with Nazi zombies.” In my estimation, there’s one decent one – 1977’s Shock Waves – and everything else is bunk. Case in point, the one-two punch of Zombie Lake and Oasis of the Zombies (aka Treasure of the Living Dead), staples of many a public domain DVD horror set, now brought to life in high-definition on Blu-ray by Kino. These are the best discs possible for a pair of clunkers that are of interest only to zombie aficionados and Jess Francophiles.
I’ve written about Jean Rollin quite a bit, and I am a fan, but I can’t forgive him the shoddiness of Zombie Lake. He directed it under a pseudonym (though kept his own name as an actor; he appears briefly as an investigator), and it doesn’t display any of his usual motifs. Hell, it’s not even shot well; even his weakest efforts always look nice. Rollin is actually given a decent hook by screenwriter Jess Franco – the waters of a cursed lake revive a half-dozen Nazis whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped there by French freedom fighters defending their small town. One of the Nazis had fathered a child with a woman in the town, before he was killed by the townsfolk, and there’s a subplot about his relationship with his daughter that flirts with being uncomfortably sympathetic to undead Nazis in general.
Positives? Copious, unflinching female nudity. Negatives? Everything else. The zombie make-up is slap-dash green foundation, and the gore is limited to cherry-syrup kisses on the necks of the zombies’ victims. Rollin clearly doesn’t give a damn, and his lack of interest creates an uninteresting film. I clearly saw several actors play different bit parts by switching out cheap wigs, and there’s no effort to disguise the numerous underwater scenes as anything other than a swimming pool. Sometimes cheap junk can be forgiven when it’s underlined with enthusiasm, but Zombie Lake is boring because it’s bored. It can’t muster the effort to be anything more than its logline – zombie Nazis come out of a lake, the end.
Better by a hair is Franco’s own Oasis of the Zombies, which skirts some of the atmosphere that Zombie Lake is missing (without ever actually being good). Franco’s film is about Nazi zombies protecting a stash of treasure in the desert. A lot of the film is made up of extended, confusing flashbacks intercut with inexplicable WWII stock footage, but it’s not as if Franco doesn’t care – it’s that he doesn’t have the money (or the skill, arguably) to bring the ideas in Oasis of the Zombies to life. It’s a dry, snooze-inducing affair that comes to life occasionally when Franco’s oatmeal-faced young Nazi zombies stand around looking at their prey. Nothing much happens, but you anticipate something happening, which is more than you can say of Zombie Lake, which disappoints earlier and more often.
Between the two discs, Oasis of the Zombies is the winner in the looks department. Despite the beat-up stock pieces, it looks really pretty on Blu, certainly better than a film of this calibre warrants. The disc is without features to speak of (rare for a Kino Redemption release), but if you needed an archival version of Oasis, well, here it is. Zombie Lake certainly fares better than the versions found in those “50 Horror Movies in one DVD box set” collections, but just doesn’t have the visual flair of Oasis (comparatively speaking, of course). Lake comes with an alternate opening, and both films can be enjoyed in their original French with subtitles or dubbed with bad English. Special note must be made of Kino’s packaging, which finally fills in the gaps (#20 and #21) in the numbered spines of the Redemption Eurohorror line, while sporting hilariously misleading modern cover art with zombies more inspired by KNB than the ones featured in these films. But, hey, if it sells because of the scary art, that just means more in Kino’s line of horror’s least likely Blu-rays.