Creature-Feature Conversations: Zombie Lake

French movie poster for Zombie Lake

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 (aka Le Lac des Morts Vivants), 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.

The main zombie stumbling around outside.

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?

The flame-soaked finale of Zombie Lake.

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.

A Tender Ballad From the Old Country: Mer Whinery’s Horror-Western Influences

Mer Whinery is the author of Muzzleland Press’ latest release, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun, available here.

You know, I never even cared about watching or even reading a western until I got my greasy mits on that Jonah Hex comic. So when I decided to write my own take on the genre, Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun, that was where I started.

Man, I remember the first time I ever laid my eye on that gnarly Reb gunslinger with the jacked-up face. I was probably around ten or so. I was visiting a local junk store that always had a steady supply of issues of Eerie, Creepy and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines. One day, whilst thumbing through them, I stumbled across Weird Western Tales Jonah Hex Issue Number 18, August 1973. I got one gander at Hex and the big-ass werewolf leering at him from the rafters of what appeared to be some sort of barn or cabin, and was sold immediately. Other than the horror comics I mentioned I wasn’t much of a comic book fan. To this day I am not sure what attracted me to Hex, but later I would come to realize he was the gateway drug leading me into the realm of Italian westerns.

You see, the Spaghetti Westerns felt like the Jonah Hex comics. Look, I have really tried to get into the Duke’s films. Really. I feel like a damn turncoat to the American dream when I confess, without reservations, that I absogoddamnlutely cannot stomach any John Wayne Western. Or most any American western for that matter. Eastwood’s work in this country gets a pass pretty much because he took so many of the quirks and oddities of the Italian masters and injected them into his own films that they pretty much became their own thing. Peckinpah as well. The European westerns were possessed of a sensual severity, a brazen taste for the surreal and the sadistic that bordered upon the feral, which stroked a thirsty nerve in me. Not to mention their unapologetic embrace of the supernatural.

As big a nut for Sergio Leone’s work as I am, and I can proudly admit to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being my favorite mainstream film of all time, I have to admit I find some of the lesser-known chestnuts of the genre equally as satisfying. The Great Silence and Django films of Sergio Corbucci are every bit as impressive as anything produced by Leone. The Great Silence in particular getting even higher marks in my book for having the nutsack to unleash that ending upon an unwary public. There were others as well. A Man Called Blade with its tomahawk-wielding anti-hero, the borderline gothic horror of And God Said to Cain all left an indelible impression upon me. But for sheer wotthefookery, one film stands out. That film is Lucio Fulci’s 1975 nugget, Four of the Apocalypse.

I think it was the weird-ass, John Denver/Gordon Lightfoot/hippy-strung-out-on-ludes theme song that hooked me. John Wayne, in all of his virile Americana-humping snoozefests, never encountered any of the freakish shit that goes down in this bad boy. Cannibalism, rape, peyote trips, skinning folks, and that theme song. Oh… that crayzay theme song. I didn’t catch this one until I was well into my fifth year (don’t judge) of college. I found the film at the local video store on a sort of a bootleg mix-tape of sorts that looked like someone had pointed a camcorder at their TV set and let the tape run until it was gone. I don’t even remember what the other films on the tape were, and the dubbing was so out of sync it rendered what was already a barely coherent movie damn near incomprehensible. That only added to the experience. That and the sixer of Coors Light I had polished off halfway through the viewing. I never forgot the flick, and when it rose from the grave decades later on DVD I snatched it up without thinking twice. Fulci’s flick has aged pretty well in my opinion and is still a gnarly ride. Well worth your ducats.

Oddly, while I was writing the book I found myself actually gravitating away from the Western genre for inspiration. Ultimately I ended up absorbing far more influence from the Italian crime films, or poliziotteschi, as they are called. True, these movies were mostly recycled riffs on the whole “pissed off and burned-out office of the law who is just done with all of the horseshit decides to just blow holes in folks with large caliber weapons” trope, ripping the Dirty Harry films in particular. But like the westerns, the poliziotteschi cranked everything up to thirteen-and-a-half. The nihilism so thick you could slice it, lightly braise it, and serve it with couscous and a finely aged Merlot. Two films were especially significant, Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and Umberto Lenzi’s Violent Naples. Deodato’s movie especially stuck with me with it’s immensly unlikable protagonists and were instrumental in the sculpting of the Coffin Mills Haints. I wanted that same sense of chaos and lust for violence I found in those films to be imbued in my protagonists. I think I captured it very, very well indeed. I’ve always been a sucker for the anti-hero, even if he toe-drags the dark side more often than not.

For the horror elements I returned to my old faves, the gutsplatter olympics of 70s and 80s gore films, again, mostly of Italian stock. I’ve always been a straight up sucker for the really really hardcore shitfests. You know the one’s I’m talking about. Really stinky awful turds like Night of the Zombies and City of the Walking Dead and, a perennial favorite, Burial Ground, Nights of Terror. That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has read any of my work, especially my first short fiction collection The Little Dixie Horror Show. But it might be surprising to learn I was also impacted, quite profoundly, by the old Hammer Studio films as well. Especially for soaking myself up in some genuine Gothic ambience.

The Coffin Mills Haints, the dubious protagonists of Coffin, were created long before the book was even a twitch in my brain stem. I had actually mentioned them, in passing, in a short story of mine from my second collection of short fiction, Phantasmagoria Blues. It wasn’t much more than a blurb, but I had already formed and fully made flesh the profane trio in my head. Never before in all of my creative exploits have I managed to create such a vivid, painstakingly realized fistful of bloodthirsty sonsabitches. I knew it was a bit of a dice roll selling them as “heroes”, but I knew they were worth it. Each member of the clan contains a little more of my DNA than I would care to admit, even that infernal Princess of Hell, Sugar Bava.

It was all a bit like a carnival ride, writing Trade Yer Coffin for A Gun. The best sort of carnival ride. You know the kind I’m talking about. The threadbare midway spookhouse you stumble across toward the end of the evening when you’re good and ripped and slightly out of sorts. Manned by some greasy creature who looks like he’s been in and out of the joint for Christ-knows-what, settling into that ramshackle fiberglass mine cart and allowing yourself to be delivered into the mouth of the Unknown. It become a Stygian journey. A candy-coated stroll through the Abyss.

Kind of sad to see it all end in a way. But in Little Dixie these sorts of things never really go away. We kind of like to hang on to our folk heroes and tall tales. Legends are passed down from mother to daughter, grandfather to grandson, and whispered over for decades on. Perhaps the Coffin Mills Haints will rise again in some form or another. Just keep lighting a candle for them at the window and singing a song to keep you safe.

The song momma used to sing.

A tender ballad from the old country.

Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun by Mer Whinery now available in Kindle and paperback

front 2A frontier town in peril!
The savagery of the hungry damned!
An unholy trio their only salvation!
Southeastern Oklahoma of the 1880s:
Little Dixie to some. Hell to others…

In the chaotic years following the end of the Civil War, Little Dixie is a brutal no-man’s land where life and death are dictated not just by gangs of lawless thugs, but by far more sinister things as well. Shadowy beings that walk the line in the dirt separating Jesus from the Devil, writing their names in blood, terror, and human suffering.

Such is the woeful condition of Coffin Mills, a town cursed by a history of dark arts and shameful secrets. Something wicked has been stealing the town’s children, something not of this world, or even the next.

Salvation arrives in the form of a trio of mysterious gunslingers known throughout the South as the Haints, a legendary band of bounty hunters specializing in tracking prey of a supernatural variety. They kill monsters, plain and simple.

Haunted by a violent past that will either deliver or destroy them, will they emancipate Coffin Mills from its otherworldly predator, or will all be lost to something far worse than even eternal damnation?

Available on Amazon

A few signed copies left in our Storenvy store

Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun – signed copies available

Trade Yer Gun aGrab yourself a SIGNED copy of Muzzleland Press’ latest release—the debut novel of southern-friend spooky short story writer extraordinaire, Mer Whinery!

Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun is Louis L’Amour meets Lucio Fulci in a dust-caked cavalcade of gore and grit. The book barrels forth like a blood-sotted tumbleweed in a high wind. Blood as in the red stuff —buckets of it, in fact—and blood as in family. Reader, you won’t soon forget the Coffin Mills Haints.” – Matthew M. Bartlett, author of Creeping Waves and The Stay-Awake Men

 

Trade your dollars for an old-west horrorshow here!

Little Dixie’s Callin’ You Home – A Review of Phantasmagoria Blues by Mer Whinery

Published by Literati Press; Book Available for Order Here

Review by Matthew M. Bartlett

Crows know death.

It’s almost like they can smell it. Something in their nerves gets a hum going. The hive mind melts together and the murder starts to form in the sky, swirling in sooty spirals…

– Mer Whinery, “The Little Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods”

I’m as provincial as they come. Give me New England, with its dense woods, its diffident baristas, its progressive bumper stickers, its snooty colleges, its coffeehouses and even, God help us all, its Vermont hippies. I don’t even mind the cold.

The South? It might as well be another planet. In the early 90s, I took a trip to Florida. Along the way I stopped somewhere in Georgia and found an ancient, leaning, and unpainted ramshackle house, whose owners sold hot dogs out of their kitchen window. The dog I got was the most unnatural, terrifying shade of pink I’ve ever encountered. I ate it anyway.

I think it changed me, and not for the better.

But you know what? I really like Mer Whinery’s dark and haunted South. I’d pay good money to take in an exploitation flick at the Red Hand movie theater. To spend a sticky night in the Tarantula Arms Motel in the staticky blue glow of a television with a dangling antenna. To put on a lighted helmet and trespass at Bloody Ben’s Pit. C’mon, readers, meet me at The Git’N Split. We’ll get some Dr. Peppers and drive around the dark, weird towns of Coffin Mills and Black Knot. (Note to self: ask the author if I can get a subscription to the Black Knot Daily Redeemer.)

cover

Phantasmagoria Blues, the second collection from Oklahoma horror writer Mer Whinery, consists of seven stories that explore the haunted shadows of Oklahoma and Texas, and the damned and damaged souls that dwell in those shadows. Whinery deftly inhabits and breathes life into a bereft husband and father, a lovelorn teenage girl with a very unhealthy crush, a scummy projectionist, and a broken, cigarette-chewing repo man obsessed with a creepy photograph he finds in a dank old house.

The collection starts off ambitiously with “The Loved Ones,” a post-monster-invasion science fiction tale of a man who has lost his wife and two kids, and the replacements with whom—with which—he’s provided. It starts off by dispensing in a few paragraphs with its premise, but the info dump quickly pivots into a compulsively readable and tense story with a well-executed twist that some might have predicted—though I didn’t. Whinery won me over quickly.

The centerpiece of the collection, a-darker-than-dark little masterpiece, is “The Projectionist,” whose protagonist, the deeply unpleasant Newt McAlester, after suffering a grievous injury via a malfunctioning movie projector, is given a sketchy new assignment: He must arrive at the theater at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, sequester himself in the booth, run the projector without peeking at the film and, especially, never, ever look down at the audience below. He must wear earplugs. He must stay until precisely 7 a.m., and not a moment before. And he has to keep the whole thing a secret.

The narrative starts off fairly predictably—of course McAlester’s curiosity gets the better of him—but it spins off into such grotesque and ornery insanity I felt myself grinning in admiration. And what an ending! Here Whinery proves himself an audacious storyteller with a flair for the grotesque.

I also really dug “Hungry Boy,” despite Whinery’s abject disclaimer that precedes the tale, in which he says his goal was to write “whiney-ass bullshit—like ‘Twilight.’” I haven’t read Twilight, but this story, told from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, is smart, emotionally real, funny, and, of course, violent and grotesque. I went in not expecting much and emerged from the other end impressed.

Most of the stories in Phantasmagoria Blues were similarly surprising, similarly good, compulsively readable, and well-executed. I always kind of inwardly crumple when I encounter a zombie story, and Whinery as much as notes in his preamble to “Dead Folks” that there’s not much new to be explored in that tattered, groaning corner of the genre. I read “Dead Folks” and found little to object to, but also little to cause it to stand out. Otherwise, “The Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods” is effective and eerie, with shades of S.P. Miskowski. “Memento Mori” is a terrific tale of a lost man who finds a women who may or may not be the subject of an ancient photograph of the Posed and Photographed Dead. “The 10th Life” is a buried-treasure story with an aspect that I—an admirer of cats—particularly enjoyed.

I recommend Phantasmagoria Blues as a refreshing take on Southern horror by a writer with a unique and strong voice. It’s well written, enjoyable, dark, and nasty. If I have any minor complaints, they’re about the form, not the content. The margins aren’t right-justified—a peeve of mine—and I found the sans-serif font distracting. It’s a choice far better suited to onscreen reading. I found a smattering of minor grammatical errors and the occasional typo as well. The content, though, is more than sufficiently strong to outweigh the aesthetical issues.

I’m going to pick up a copy of Whinery’s previous collection, and I await the chance to make a return trip to his next work—to his corpse-riddled and gore-soaked savage South.

Four blackened fingers out of five

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, the forthcoming Rangel from Dim Shores, and Creeping Waves (due out late 2015) from Muzzleland Press. His short stories have appeared in Faed, Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Wicked Tales, and High Strange Horror. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and their cats Phoebe, Nigel, Peach Pie, and Larry. You can visit his blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.

Book Review: Giallo Fantastique

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Published by Word Horde

Review by Mer Whinery

Picture it:

1984.

Three thirteen year-old boys in a shadowed living room, huddled around a flickering television set gorging themselves on block-cheese nachos, all hopped up on a case of Mountain Dew. On the screen, a beautiful young woman is admiring herself in a mirror. Suddenly, a wall of dissonant music overpowers the scene; a pair of demonic eyes appear outside her window. The stage is set for ultimate terror.

suspiria2

This was my first exposure to the genre of film known as giallo. The movie was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It was broadcast into my best friend’s living room courtesy of a hacked satellite dish.  For the uninitiated, “giallo” is the Italian word for yellow, and is a genre of film trapped somewhere between murder mystery and slasher horror, often served with a side helping of supernatural gravy and kinky sex. It eschews coherence and logical plot in favor of style and shock, leaning far into the realm of the surreal. Giallo often features storytelling through melodramatic music and overwrought imagery. After Suspiria came others. Argento’s Deep Red, Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, and even films shot outside of Italy such as England’s Don’t Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg. These movies had a profound impact on me both as a writer and a lover of cinema.

Giallo Fantastique, the new collection of short fiction compiled and edited by Ross E. Lockhart, attempts to capture the feel and tone of those films and transfer them to the written word. However, this collection also seeks to marry the giallo with a French genre of fiction called fantastique. Fantastique is a variety of fiction with blatant supernatural overtones, more closely related to weird fiction than any other categorization. The results are mixed, but ultimately satisfying, with a few tales that skirt tantalizingly close to brilliance.

Most of the tales entombed within Giallo Fantastique lean more toward the fantastique than giallo. Mixing the two is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the stories get bogged down in shock for the sake of shock, and an over-reliance on the surreal, which is not uncommon for a giallo. However, since the goal of the collection is an attempt to merge the two genres together, a stronger balance needs to be struck. The majority of the stories are well written and a few are very clever, but only a handful really set themselves apart from the dark flock. But oh, what a handful of darkly delicious doozies are they!

GialloFantastique_TPB_FC_005-663x1024

My favorite selection would have to be the enigmatic, and oh-so-gialloesquely named “The Strange Vice of ZLA-313” by MP Johnson. Johnson totally nails the spirit of the giallo but adds his own twist, setting the mayhem in the future. It’s fantastique, sci-fi, and horror all rolled into one delightful, sexy, and creepy chimichanga. Here is a writer who understands the genre and elevates it to new and exciting heights. I would have loved it to be longer.

“Sensoria” by Anya Martin is a little less far-reaching, but no less compelling. A cocktail of weird fiction ala Lovecraft and Argento-ish psychedelia, it sits with the reader long after the final page has turned. Out of all of the tales within Giallo Fantastique, “Sensoria” is the most cinematic, practically begging to be lensed by David Lynch.

High marks go to Michael Kazepis’s “Minerva,” a straight-up balls-to-the-wall giallo, and Orrin Grey’s “The Red Church,” a creepy little number which digs deep into the hallowed territory of Robert W. Chambers. Brian Keene’s “Exit Strategies” rounds out the collection as a chilling exposé of the secret occult history of the U.S. Transportation system that, honestly, doesn’t really lock into either the giallo or fantastique genre yet, somehow, fits perfectly into the collection. It’s a wonderful closing number.

Enough cannot be said about the excellent introduction by editor Ross E. Lockhart. The man knows his stuff, and his thoughtful and thankfully entertaining explanation of the entangled genres at play here makes sense of what is presented. Lockhart’s introduction makes the book much easier to digest and appreciate, especially for readers who may not be as familiar with Italian cinema.

4/5 Geysers of Fake-Looking Blood

Mer Whinery is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show and  Phantasmagoria Blues, which is available for pre-order here. His short story “The Projectionist” also appears in our latest anthology, High Strange Horror, available now.

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