When I first decided to review all these zombie movies, the knowledge that somewhere along the way was “Virgin Among The Living Dead” was one of the reasons I chose to take the plunge. From first discovering it on VHS many years ago, it’s been one of my favourite horror films, and I hope this encourages a few of you to go and watch it.
A bit about its history first. The version I saw first had some rather unusual edits, including blacking out almost all the screen (leaving a small circle with a neutral detail in) whenever there was any nudity; and also featured the insertion of a repeating dream sequence where the star, Christina, only seen from the back, is chased through a garden by zombies. Well, it turns out the censorship was due to it being a TV edit of the movie (proper prints of the original being hard to come by, it would seem) and the zombies…well, 8 years after its initial release, Eurocine (a distributor of cheap Euro-horror), while they had Jean Rollin filming “Zombie Lake” (underwater Nazi zombies!), got him to shoot that scene. Every time poor Christina fell asleep in the movie, we’d be treated to a couple of minutes of zombie chasing; as well as all those changes (no zombies in this director’s cut), we also got a completely different ending – but more on that later.
Before the internet (if you can even imagine such a horrific thing) I just assumed that was the movie, but I remember a newsletter which mentioned “grey-label” – basically, taking movies where the legal provenance was shaky and re-editing them – distributor “Video Search Of Miami” had taken that version and a few other edits to make the longest possible version. But I was poor and didn’t want to spend £££ on an imported VHS tape of unknown quality, so I waited for its first British DVD release and that’s the movie we’re reviewing tonight. There’s yet another version, with an orgy scene that features none of the cast members, which goes by the title “Christina, Princess Of Eroticism”, but I don’t think anyone’s too sad about missing that (unless you really like orgies).
(by the way, if you want the exhaustive rundown on the different versions of this movie, go to http://www.dvddrive-in.com/reviews/t-z/virginamonglivingdeadblu73.htm)
Christina (Christina von Blanc, an extraordinarily beautiful woman who never took to acting, it would seem) has gone from London to Monserrat, in Portugal, for the reading of her father’s will – a father she never met, due to him sending her away to boarding school after the death of her mother, who died almost immediately after her birth. I mean, I can buy a slightly absentee father, but to never see her in 20 years? It’s not like he was that busy, or that far away! While staying at an inn, she’s told that no-one lives in Monserrat Castle, but she laughs this off as she’s got a letter from her Uncle. The castle’s dogsbody, a mute who communicates via the occasional grunt, Basilio (director Franco), comes to pick her up.
The first thing you’ll notice is the soundtrack, which is one of my favourite ever. It was done by a guy called Bruno Nicolai, who did sound for hundreds of movies and composed the soundtrack for dozens more – Tarantino used a few of his pieces for “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds”. It’s extraordinary, a sort of Italian take on Krautrock, with the addition of wild free-jazz effects on top. It’s absolutely perfect for the movie, with its sleazy / noisy tones matching beautifully, as well as being genuinely great music in its own right.
Christina meets her family up at the castle, and they’re a very odd bunch. Uncle Howard (Howard Vernon) sits and plays the piano while staring off into space; Carmense, who’s just “part of the family”, a predatory lesbian; her stepmother, Herminia (Rose Keikens), who’s on her deathbed and manages to whisper “get out” before dying; Aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar), who seems super-unimpressed that Christina is there; a blind woman (Linda Hastreiter, uncredited) who can see the colour of Christina’s soul and wants her to leave for her own good; and Basilio, of course. For such an apparently deserted place, there’s plenty of people wandering about, including someone who, in a normal movie, would be the love interest, but is frightened off by Uncle Howard and disappears from the movie; there’s also a couple of old pervs who check out Christina as she’s having a dip in the not-really-swimming-friendly lake. The women are all very heavily made up and they all give “mannered” performances, seeming as if they’re all in the middle of a very bad dream. Most mannered of all is the woman listed in the credits as “Queen of the Night” (Ann Libert), who seems to only exist for Christina (and looks quite a lot like the blind girl, with thick black hair and tons of makeup).
It’s the most oppressive-feeling movie I can think of, taking what could very simply be filmed to look beautiful (Portugal) and turning it into a place of misery and death. I know they sort of mention it themselves in an early monologue, but every plant seems over-ripe, and the smell almost comes off the screen. The sense that everyone’s just waiting around for some catastrophe is also strong – basically, it’s a masterpiece of mood.
All this is rather surprising, given its provenance. While Jess Franco has made some great films, he’s also made tons of garbage, and has been responsible for more pornography than perhaps any other “mainstream” director. There’s a heck of a lot of full-frontal nudity in this, too, although for those of us who originally watched that censored VHS tape, this all might come as something of a surprise. In a very un-erotic scene, a naked Carmense is holding a pair of bloody scissors, which she’s used to cut above the (also completely naked) blind woman’s breast, and is drinking the blood and laughing while the blind woman stares off into the distance, showing no emotion at all. You’d have to be some sort of monster to get turned on watching this, which I think is the director’s intention.
It might fairly be said that Christina isn’t the strongest actress in the world, but if you imagine she’s an innocent Christian girl, trying to make friends with a family she’s never known, then her behaviour makes more sense – it doesn’t excuse her most regular facial expression, though, which is that of someone who’s having the paint-drying process explained to them. Both she and many of the other characters exist in a sort of dream-logic world, and I’ve spent many reviews abusing dream logic as just lazy plotting, but it works here. Although the title’s a bit of a giveaway, the behaviour of her family is slightly off-kilter, with some scenes being masterpieces of reality, just tilted a little – take the “funeral”, for example.
Christina’s father, played by Italian horror stalwart Paul Muller, is perhaps the most interesting of all the characters. He both wants his daughter with him in his world, but wants her to escape too, and the scene where he is being pulled back to the place of his suicide, while Christina follows through overgrown jungle, is a quietly wonderful piece of work. Many scenes will stay with you, which I appreciate sounds like a crazy amount of praise for what many regard as a fairly undistinguished work from a hack horror / porno director.
I’ll go out and say it, though – I think this is a complete classic. A bunch of things – script, performances, locations – came together perfectly, and the result is a gem of mood and the hinterland between dreams and nightmares, which even manages a moving ending. In the longer / zombie filled version, the ending is a loop from the beginning, which works really well, but here in the shorter director’s cut, the Queen Of The Night gets involved and the scene they shot works like a charm. The popular story goes that Franco made this to come to terms with the premature death of his muse / regular leading lady Soledad Miranda, and if so it’s a truly wonderful tribute to her. If you’re reading this and haven’t already been hassled by me at some point in the past to watch this, then go and do so immediately.
Rating: enthusiastic thumbs up