The Flesh-eating curiosities of eurocine
words by Andrew Roberts
oday’s discerning horror fan is unlikely to have encountered the inconspicuous Eurociné, which sounds rather like a European camera manufacturer from a bygone era.
Yet, due to the ever-growing popular subculture of cult horror collectors and enthusiasts, the old spectre of Eurociné is returning to haunt a new generation of eager purveyors of cinematic curios. Nowhere is this more demonstrated than in a small subset of their vast filmography dealing with the savage spectacle of flesh-eating, fuelled by the contemporaneous popularity of Italian cannibal movies and offal-scoffing zombie films. While it’s easy to find a fellow fan who adores their lavish copy of Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie Flesh Eaters or Cannibal Ferox, it’s comparatively less common and almost inconceivable that someone cherishes the somnolent beauty of Oasis of the Zombies or the innocent silliness of Cannibal Terror.
To understand the origins of Eurociné though, we would have to elaborate on the life of one man in particular: Marius Lesoeur. Born in 1911 into a family of travelling fairground professionals, Marius was inducted into the world of extravagance from an early age and eventually given responsibilities as a young man to run bumper car rides and lotteries. It was too long before he began integrating his first experimental films, filming footage at the funfairs that he attended, Marius crafted intricate films of the various theatrical performances that were being played out in fairgrounds, pausing briefly to participate in the liberation of Paris with the Resistance. Shortly after his return, other film companies began to show interest in Lesoeur’s travelling amusements, requiring circus attractions to feature in their own productions, the first of which was 1947’s Une Belle Garce. It wasn’t long before producers, impressed by the carnival’s own equipment, specifically their much more efficient and powerful generators which were far too costly for the filmmakers to hire, allowed Lesoeur a certain percentage of the film’s earnings in return for the use of their equipment. Thus began the young Marius’s interest in the cinematic business.
After moving to Nice and establishing the Studios Mobiles De France, Marius Lesoeur began to collaborate on several productions with his unique portability of his film-making crew and equipment. Unfortunately, he ran into difficulty with French distributors, quickly accumulated debt, and choose to back away from the French film industry. Instead, he headed southwest to Spain where crews were generally smaller scale and films were shot on a much cheaper budget. Lesoeur would provide the actors, crew and story ideas yet keep the shooting locations within Spain itself, intending to capitalise on the French market too by distributing them himself. After working on a slowly expanding catalogue of motion pictures, Lesoeur discovered a Parisian film company that was established in 1937, considered one of the oldest film companies in the country. By 1957, however, the company on its last legs so Lesouer purchased it, rebranded it as Eurociné and giving birth to one of the little known film production companies in the exploitation world.
Eurociné kick-started its copybook with the first European westerns including Three Swords of Zorro and 5 Dollars for Ringo with Lesoeur’s son Daniel joining the emerging family business as an assistant director on the company’s early western films. After gaining an Italian ally in the film industry (Alberto Grimaldi), Eurociné were then considered for the considerably higher budgeted A Fistful of Dollars, but due to poor box office returns in Europe of their filmography, Lesoeur chose to play it safe and declined to be involved. However, erotic films started to wax in popularity as the seventies began, so Eurociné turned to making eroticised flicks with more nudity and sex, taking inspiration from popular movies at the time. This eventually spread into other genres and themes, such as cannibal films, zombie movies, women in prison, and Nazisploitation. Lesoeur, ever the enthusiastic leader, always cheered up his often flagging crews about the end result of their exploits, which almost always secured their future return to working with him.
His working practices are certainly infamous if nothing else. Crews were always kept to around 12 people, and they were encouraged to make the film look expensive but keep costs to a minimum. In the words of frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, “He was an unbelievable skinflint!” Lesoeur would also use an extensive collection of curios, ornaments and knick-knacks from his carnival days as props for the various films they produced, leading some to be noticeably reused from film-to-film by eagle-eyed viewers. Lesoeur was always a presence on film shoots, guiding and, when required, helping the crew with moving equipment and setting up shots, using his background in the carnival business to overcome technical mishaps. His penchant for keeping costs down was so entrenched that in a number of his Nazisploitation films, the vehicles on show were from a private collector and in various states of disrepair, meaning that they only travelled short distances before inevitably breaking down. This frugality even extended to the script-writing. When actors ran out of dialogue, despite a scene being far too short to stop shooting, Lesoeur would insist the actors repeat the numbers “1,2,3,4,5” and occasionally make a gesture; he would then fix the audio during the post-sync stage. On another production, with insides of train carriages created with three fake walls in a studio, the cameraman complained of the lack of movement for a supposed moving train. The enterprising Lesoeur solved the issue by providing a rubber tyre to put under the camera, which he kicked continuously while filming to provide a uniform ‘shaking’ of the train carriage.
The genesis of the company’s exploration of flesh-eating came at the turn of the 80s, when one of Eurociné’s biggest moneymakers (the erotic film) was in major decline…
Although Lesoeur usually provided starting scripts and ideas for a production, he always gave his directors complete creative freedom which extended to script changes, even direction of the actors. Re-shoots were almost always out of the question, with the first take often being used for the final film, leading to some characteristically stilted or awkward performances in his films. Even his casting choices were quite unorthodox, often hiring some actors based on chance meetings and subsequently inviting them over for a weekend to shoot a small scene or two. Soon, films were being shot so quickly that it was not uncommon for two to be made concurrently, with a new director arriving at the set on the last day of a previous film’s shoot, reusing the cast and crew for a similar film. This practice grew to become quite commonplace at Eurociné in the late 70s/early 80s, leading some films to appear manifestly derivative of each other. This was crudely achieved by a gallimaufry of utilising the same sets and crew, reusing stock footage from other prints and in some instances, completely repurposing a whole film by re-dubbing the dialogue with some newly shot scenes to re-sell the film as a separate product. This frequent tinkering with the materials also allowed the company to gain an advantage in different international markets – as an example, the Francoist regime in Spain didn’t tolerate nudity in their films, so specific ‘clothed’ versions of Eurociné films would be shot along with the original ‘nude’ version. The cooler, nudity-free prints would then be distributed in Spain, whilst the hotter, sexier prints could be sold in France and the rest of Europe.
The Lesouer family frequently used artist Peter Bellinsky to create poster art for their productions, always emphasising that they needed to be as sensationalist as possible, hyping certain elements and providing prospective audiences with a real desire to see the film. In the same vein, between 50 – 100 photos on set were always produced to help sell the film afterwards to distributors, which was almost always successful, in conjunction with the film’s thrilling promotional material. Of course, all good things must come to an end and Eurociné rolled its last camera in 1989, with that year’s The Fall of Eagles taking the crown of the company’s final oeuvre in over a hundred titles to date. The face and lifeblood of the company, Marius Lesoeur, sadly passed away in 2003 at the age of 92. His son Daniel kept the company afloat for a number of additional years by sub-licensing their vast catalogue for newer releases in other territories and even helped produce an animated film, Toys in the Attic, in 2009.
The genesis of the company’s exploration of flesh-eating came at the turn of the 80s, when one of Eurociné’s biggest moneymakers (the erotic film) was in major decline, due to liberalisation of worldwide attitudes towards sex, in some cases resulting in full legalisation of hardcore pornography. Looking at what was popular across the exploitation world, the Italian cannibal cycle had been kickstarted by Umberto Lenzi in 1972’s The Man From Deep River (Deep River Savages in the UK) and had since gone on to churn out successful imitators with Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World, Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals and Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God. Almost concurrently, films like Jorge Grau’s Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue in 1974 and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978 caused a significant stir among European filmmakers who quickly devised their own flesh-munching cash-ins, leading to the very popular Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2) from Lucio Fulci, Nightmare City, with Umberto Lenzi segueing nicely from living to dead cannibals, and Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh. Deciding to hop onto the same bandwagon, Lesouer and his company began work on their first foray into omophagous mayhem: 1980’s White Cannibal Queen.
Starting production in 1979, White Cannibal Queen (known simply as Cannibals in the UK) was directed by prolific Spanish filmmaker Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco, who, apart from being one of the most efficient and productive directors in his industry (with a copybook of over 200 films), was also one of Eurociné’s most reliable professionals and collaborators; his early effort The Awful Dr Orloff gained widespread distribution and success across the world. Towards the very late 60s, Franco moved to France in order to make films outside of the strict regime in his native Spain, which is when his output with Eurociné grew exponentially. Starring the recognisable faces of Al Cliver of Zombie Flesh Eaters fame and Lina Romay, Franco’s muse and future lifelong companion, the story focuses on Jeremy Taylor (Cliver), a tropical disease specialist whose life is left in ruins by a cannibalistic attack whilst on an expedition. His wife is devoured alive, his daughter, Lena, kidnapped and his left arm hacked off; the trauma rendering him an immediate amnesiac. Cue Nurse Ana (played by Romay) who tends to the wounded academic until his memory inexplicably returns, leading to a new excursion into the jungle to rescue his now-adult daughter from the Gaevis cannibal tribe.
Avid cannibal enthusiasts will notice the evidently divergent tone and pace to Franco’s rendition. The main attraction of the cannibals themselves almost defies belief in comparison to the native flesh-eaters of their Italian counterparts, being reduced to very European-looking gentlemen with a variety of multi-coloured, chaotic face paintings. Most of them are equipped with loincloths or thin bamboo sticks but eagle-eyed viewers can spot occasional lucky ones who got to keep their wedding ring or fancy Speedos underneath their costume. Perhaps it is the regenerative power of the tribe’s anthropophagy or even the sunlight of the curiously Spanish-looking ‘Amazon’ jungle, but young olive-skinned, brown-haired Lena (played by Anouchka Lesoeur, daughter of Eurocine’s Daniel) transmogrifies many years later into the statuesque, blonde bombshell played by Sabrina Siani, now in line for marrying the cannibal chieftain, played by Eurociné regular Antonio Mayans. Even Taylor himself is not averse to pulling visual pranks on the audience – after losing his arm during the film’s opening, Al Cliver has to put up with his now inconvenient limb being trussed up behind his back for the rest of the affair.
It’s a very simple premise, even for exploitation hounds, and while it ambles around at a somewhat less-than- leisurely pace, there’s a real charm to some of the film’s cack-handed attempts to create an alternative to spaghetti gut-munchers. See Jess Franco himself portray a stilted Texan trader who hearkens to ‘body and soul’ as justification for dealing with a murderous native tribe; see a clueless party of British explorers fatally interpret their expedition as a jolly old safari walk (and bemoan aching feet as a result!); see a paltry attempt at an honourable fight between a father who wants his daughter back, and the noble warrior who wants to win her affections (while both try their damndest to not laugh as they frolic harmlessly around in freezing cold water). And who could forget the main stars of the show; the cannibalism sequences. A far cry from the lurid verisimilitude of something like Cannibal Holocaust or even the fun splatter of Cannibal Ferox, Franco chooses instead to focus on perpetually abstract sinew-crunching in agonising close-up. Whilst initially this can be a little disturbing – they linger a little too long and more than outstaying their welcome – which clearly proves gorehounds wrong in that there really is too much of a good thing. It’s still fairly fun, though you begin to wonder exactly when it will end, and the film always manages to keep you guessing.
As was often the case, when White Cannibal Queen was approaching the end of production, Marius Lesoeur couldn’t resist getting in another production and decided to let another Eurociné collaborator Alain Dueruelle inherit the set from Jess Franco to shoot another cannibal flick. Franco was not informed of this beforehand and understandably was irritable at this wholesale reuse of his resources. While Dueruelle had to wait for Franco to wrap completely before he could begin his own film, he did gain his assistance when writing his script, which was long rumoured until fairly recently. And thus, Cannibal Terror was born.
Somehow even more silly than Franco’s cannibal foray, Cannibal Terror relates the story of Roberto and Mario, two petty thieves who band together with prostitute Lina to kidnap the young daughter of a rich car manufacturer named Florence. After the girl is snatched, they hike to the nearby jungle expanse where an old acquaintance initially offers them shelter, until Mario decides to rape the man’s wife Manuela for no apparent reason than a script heavy-handedly trying to coerce the audience into despising these characters even further. After their acquaintance discovers this violation, the group are forced out into the wilderness and left to the mercy of local cannibals who pursue them as Florence’s parents race against time to find their daughter.
Due to being made virtually at the same time as White Cannibal Queen, Dueruelle’s contribution to the cannibal boom is almost indiscernible from Jess Franco’s original, using the same Spanish woodlands, cast members, plot devices and of course, the titular cannibals themselves. Even some of the stock footage from White Cannibal Queen is interspersed with the newly shot sequences, in a similar fashion to how Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive (1980) literally cannibalised Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World and Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God to pad out its required presence of animal slaughter and castration. Antonio Mayans abandons the role of a cannibal chieftain to play the role of the moronic rapist Mario, yet still retains the crazy hair aftermath of having his locks tightly braided on the previous film set. Antoine Fontaine (Taylor’s ill-fated boat pilot from the previous film) makes up the other dumb half of the thief partnership, Roberto, while Pamela Stanford (Taylor’s equally ill-fated wife of the previous feature) returns as Manuela, who is raped in an awkward scene when it’s clearly apparent she’s not quite as bound as we’re supposed to believe. Not only that, but part of Manuela and her husband’s revenge plot to abandon their co-conspirators in cannibal territory also requires Manuela to dance provocatively for the man who violated her mere hours before. Sensitively handled, this film is not.
Whilst the cannibals are cut-and-paste directly from White Cannibal Queen, they do act in an altogether different fashion, flitting back and forth between antagonistic and altruistic. We’re first introduced to them when they unceremoniously capture the crooks’ guide and butcher her. Of course, they focus on the main anti-heroes for the most part and soon savage them but – in probably the only instance during the entire cannibal cycle – spare the little girl and hand her back to her parents when they arrive at the village. As it transpires, the cannibals have allied with the kidnappers’ acquaintance; possibly the only time on film that the cannibals are the good guys. M. Night Shyamalan, eat your heart out!
Since filming ran into 1980, with Deodato’s brutal indictment of journalism Cannibal Holocaust causing havoc in Italy, the film-makers decided to integrate a much higher degree of on-screen carnage, including several disembowelments, offal-eating, even severed arms and heads. Granted, these sequences make liberal use of mannequin limbs, optical tricks and a healthy larder of pig carcasses but the desire to be gratuitous and gory is certainly charming in its own way and it is handled better than the devourings in its predecessor.
With the cast restricted to egg tortillas every day for lunch, and rumours of only three crew members on set at a time, Cannibal Terror is certainly cheap and cheerful exploitation cheese. Compared to the nastiness of some of the Italian offerings, Dueruelle’s opus is relatively harmless and the lack of animal butchery and realistic mutilations will be more welcome to entry-level viewers of this particular subgenre. Mixed in with jaw-dropping English dubbing and synchronisation, and a perpetually looping stock sound of parrots and jungle animals, you’ve all the makings of a deadly drinking game. Considering its low budget and cowboy filmmaking style, Cannibal Terror was pretty lucrative for the company, being exported to Europe, the UK, the US, Japan, India, Fiji and even some areas of South Africa.
In Portugal however, Jess Franco was making yet another cannibal movie for Eurociné, cajoled into taking the reins after unsuccessfully offering the project to Amando De Ossorio, infamous for his Tombs of the Blind Dead series. Devil Hunter was to be another exploitative grab at the money wrought from the cannibal mania across Europe, despite Franco being particularly disinterested in the subgenre, even going so far as to say he hated cannibal movies and had no understanding of why audiences desired them. Taking a sprinkling of the more action-oriented jungle romps of the ’30s and ’40s, Devil Hunter attempts to infuse the horror of flesh-eating with the tried-and-tested ‘good vs evil’ element that would be popularised in the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark the following year.
The skeletal plot follows model Laura Crawford, a rather vacuous young woman (“I have no opinion of men. I just love them!”) who finds herself abducted by a gang of petty schemers and immediately venture into the local rainforest to await a hefty ransom. Completely unaware that the area is home to a native settlement, the criminals soon find that a living incarnation of the tribe’s cannibalistic god is on the rampage, mangling and munching on any tender flesh he can lay his hands on. Laura is abducted anew by the tribe for their next sacrifice, paving the way for Vietnam veteran hero Peter Weston to swoop in and save the day.
In spite of the tantalising synopsis, the final product is not quite the thrilling blockbuster it aspired to be. Unlike White Cannibal Queen, Devil Hunter (originally shot as The Man Hunter) was a co-production with West Germany, so there was a demand for a recognisable exploitation face to sell the film. After having had success with Lucio Fulci on 1979’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, Al Cliver accepted another Eurociné cannibal production to play the role of macho Peter Weston. His sidekick Jack was played by Eurociné stalwart Antonio Mayans, while the beautiful Ursula Buchfellner who worked with Franco the following year on women-in-prison flick Sadomania, played Laura. Other familiar exploitation faces crop up, including Werner Pochath (Terror Express, Blood Lust, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and Cat O’Nine Tails) and Gisela Hahn (Zambo King of the Jungle, Contamination) who both play the kidnappers of the unfortunate Laura. One of the few female cannibals in the tribe was played by Aline Mess, who crops in a near-identical role in Jess Franco’s Diamonds of Kilimandjaro.
Having finally got shot of the Spanish countryside, this film’s version of the jungle is a tad more convincing with actual tropical foliage, trees and a sultry atmosphere. The cannibal tribe, however, still raise eyebrows, mostly for the ‘artistic’ choice of casting black actors almost exclusively, with little props or costume to suggest their tribal nature. By comparison, their god (or Devil as the film denotes) is something truly striking (played by the burly Bertrand Altmann), bearing engorged insectile eyes and a foul temperament just as his totemic pole in the cannibal village depicts. It’s this creature that preludes several of the film’s gory set-pieces, mostly consisting of the beast’s mouth in close-up, gurning excitedly as shredded meat oozes from its teeth. Other moments of violence include a brief shot of evisceration with a hand, Gisela Hahn’s face being found hacked up and a supposedly severed head of Werner Pochath (though it is obviously still attached under the blanket of plants). Apart from the titular Devil, the most resonant aspect of the film is the combination of the hallucinatory camerawork and a chaotically psychedelic soundtrack. It’s genuinely quite an uncomfortable and disquieting experience, as though the presence of the Devil induces the film to assault the viewers with dizzying zooms, blurry focuses and a cacophony of scrapings and guttural echoes. When the film’s checklist of bizarre imagery includes tribal dancing, Vietnam veterans bemoaning the humid climate and our intrepid hero trying to battle the Devil whilst his flaccid penis flaps wildly to and fro, one can understand why the film has the potential to be an unforgettable treat.
After three hastily conceived cannibal flicks, all released in 1980, Eurociné turned their attention to another cash cow that was eating up the box office worldwide: the zombie film. Honourably started by Night of the Living Dead and popularised by Dawn of the Dead (both from maestro George Romero), the modern zombie film was in full swing in the late ’70s/early ’80s, leading to a string of Italian knock-offs that Eurociné felt too tempting to resist emulating. Having already commissioned two cannibal movies from Jess Franco, Eurociné employed the intrepid filmmaker to pen a treatment for a zombie film, initially known as Lake of the Living Dead (Le lac des morts vivants). Treading the same aquatic path as The Frozen Dead, Shock Waves and Night of the Zombies, Franco’s film told a tale of a cursed lake which revived deceased Nazi soldiers as blood-drinking revenants long after their defeat in World War II. Whilst he was initially willing to direct the project, Franco was dissatisfied with the measly budget and left the production shortly after the script was approved. A day before filming was due to start, Eurociné offered the film to French director Jean Rollin, presumably due to his work on another zombie film The Grapes of Death in 1978. Despite reservations about the quality of the script, he accepted but was credited as J. A. Lazer due to contractual obligations that stipulated the director had to be Spanish.
Known more commonly as Zombie Lake, this peculiar film chronicles the events in a small French village with an idyllic lake, popular with swimmers and holidaymakers, most of them nude. Due to some unexplained supernatural happenings, zombies wearing Nazi uniforms arise from the murky depths and devour any nubile visitors who come their way. The mayor soon bands together with a local reporter and a little girl who has a mysterious connection to one of the undead fascists, to try and defeat the zombies once and for all.
With such an outlandish amalgamation of varying tropes and facets, it’s easy to see why Zombie Lake is one of Eurociné’s most widely seen and lucrative ventures. Probably the most striking and inescapable aspect of the film is the sheer amount of skin on display; whether it’s casual swimmers, business people or even a local netball team, the cast of the film never fail to strip down to their birthday suit in order to playfully frolic with gay abandon in the accursed lake. As already mentioned earlier, a clothed version which omits any naturist intentions is available out there, though it hardly makes for more suitable viewing in any case. Said characters in the film are almost entirely ancillary with few memorable names, faces or personalities, with only a handful of exceptions. The mayor (played by Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon) is a familiar sight but treats the zombie menace no more seriously than a burst water pipe on the high street. There’s a feisty reporter-type who initially appears to be the main protagonist role before succumbing very stupidly while trying to snap a picture of the rampaging nationalists. And then there’s the little girl Helena played by Anouchka Lesouer (of White Cannibal Queen) who has a connection to the story no viewer could quite imagine (more on that later). The rest of the cast, including the various scantily clad victims and villagers, both in the past and present, evaporate from the memory as quickly as they materialise.
The mystical lake of the title, while almost entirely unexplained in terms of its function and origins, is also a fairly memorable locale for the undead action, mainly because it flits between being a murky subterranean scum-ridden body of water, to appearing as a crystal-clear bottom of one of the production team’s swimming pools in between shots. As humorous goofs go, it still manages to elicit an unusual aura due to the gimmick of Fulci-esque submerged zombies. It’s a perfect lair for the film’s Third Reich husks, who are an odd bunch in comparison with other zombie fare. Showing the bare minimum of flesh decay and body necrosis, these German soldiers instead display a sickening shade of verdigris all over (achieved with the liberal application of greasepaint) and seem to still bleed fresh blood themselves when injured. Stirred by activity in the lake above, they grab unsuspecting paddlers and drag them into the depths to eat them, or on a few occasions when they get particularly peckish, a few troops wander into the nearby village to find a snack before returning to their aquatic hideout. This would seem pretty standard for zombies, though these Nazis seem satiated solely by biting their victims’ necks and then leaving, interestingly without their casualty reanimating as the undead themselves. They are even lured into an ambush later with a bowl of blood, so the vampiric connection is interesting if anything else. Nothing compares however to one of the subplots of the main story, in which one of the zombified soldiers remembers fathering a child with a French villager while alive and reunites with his daughter (Helena) post-mortem. This inevitably leads to a gobsmackingly unexpected sequence where they tenderly reunite, after which this particular zombie becomes protective of the surprisingly unfazed Helena for the remainder of the screentime, even leading to the other undead fighting with him over this unceremoniously kind agenda.
For all of the potential of its title, Zombie Lake doesn’t really deliver satisfying amounts of eviscerated offal and decomposed Nazi ghouls – what we get instead is such a strangely-dubbed, haphazardly-plotted tale of Nazis and nudists, making it is a must-see for trash enthusiasts. It’s hard to dislike a film where bar patrons are surprised by naked women bursting in unannounced; where the mayor earnestly and unflinchingly explains a ludicrous plan to assassinate zombie marauders; where a French villager swoons over her Nazi hero’s performance in a barn… and of course, the group of girls who casually strip off at the lakeside, giggling whilst a ditty plays jovially in the background in a scene that feels ripped straight from a 1960s British sex comedy.
In spite of its shortcomings, Zombie Lake was nevertheless one of Eurociné’s most successful ventures, exported to Europe, the US, Latin America and Japan. The box office returns were particularly promising, indicating to the Lesoeur family that the genre had plenty of lucrative opportunities left in it. They certainly accrued enough capital to greenlight another flesh-eating project, but in customary fashion, they also raided their archives for Jess Franco’s languorous supernatural film from 1973, A Virgin Among the Living Dead. With various cuts and versions already in circulation and hardcore pornography crudely edited into the runtime, the film also featured some of Zombie Lake’s footage laced throughout and re-released in 1981 to attract more zombie lovers to their catalogues. Despite this perceived slight at his work, Franco still agreed to helm the Lesoeur’s next project, Abyss of the Living Dead (L’Abîme des Morts-Vivants).
Retitled Oasis of the Zombies for its US, UK and some European releases, Jess Franco’s 1982 effort again showcases the unholy marriage of Hitler’s armies crossed with animated corpses. In the past, British soldier Captain Blabert is part of an ambush on a German Afrika Korps unit, who are transporting a cache of gold. The lone survivor of the attack, Blabert eventually takes refuge with a Sheik and fathers a child with the Sheik’s daughter, Aisha. Decades later, Blabert is visited by treasure hunter Kurt who swiftly dispatches the captain when he learns of the location of the booty. Blabert’s son Robert, meanwhile, inherits the captain’s notes and takes a gathering of friends to the sands of Africa to seek out the fabled stash, only for both parties to encounter the still-living Nazis, roaming the dunes with murderous intent.
After several slices of the cannibal pie, you’d think that Franco’s entry into zombie territory would be as equally pedestrian as White Cannibal Queen and Devil Hunter. For the most part, that assumption would be correct; Oasis of the Zombies is a particularly ponderous affair, though the opening sequence in which two holidaying lesbians are attacked by mysterious hands from the sands would suggest otherwise. From this moment on the chronology of the film changes continually and confusingly. The film quickly becomes tedious in telling the extended flashback story of Captain Blabert and his ambush of Nazis in the desert, which, in true Eurociné style, is simply stock footage taken from 1971 war movie The Devil’s Gardens. An inordinate amount of time is spent with Blabert’s past tale of romance in the desert, while Robert and his friends in the present idiotically smirk and casually agree to a dangerous trek across the desert on a treasure hunt, musing that they’ll just fail their exams anyway if they stayed home. Kurt’s killing of Blabbert is no more exciting than an injection in the hand, and his villainy doesn’t get to reach any satisfying pinnacle as he is quickly overshadowed by Robert’s journey across the desert. Other characters like the Sheik (Antonio Mayans, once again) and a girl who tags along towards the end just fade like mirages on the sandy horizon.
The absolutely magical filming locations, however, can’t be ignored. Franco gets to play with an unrivalled locale of expansive deserts, gorgeous dunes and majestic sunsets. Granted, his usual talent for framing and cinematography is lacking a little in this particular project, but there are occasional effective shots to please one’s eye. Of course, we have to mention the zombies too, which are actually much creepier and effective than one would expect. Whilst not achieving the highs of Zombie Flesh Eaters, nor the Z-grade effects of Zombie Lake, Franco’s zombies are decomposing husks of flesh still wearing Nazi uniforms, some of them weathered to the bone by the harsh sandstorms. None of them makes a sound; they remain silent and staring, carefully and timidly shuffling through the desert as the sun blazes behind them. While the expected scenes of violent carnage don’t really arrive until towards the end of the movie (and even then in relatively short supply), the undead army certainly carries an air of weirdness, mostly aided by the film’s electronic soundtrack which ranges from ceaseless high-pitched whirring sounds to dismally soporific tones of a funeral dirge. The fact that nothing too dynamic occurs in the movie gives the viewer the feeling of being lulled into a gentle sleep, only to be maddeningly kept awake when a zombie strikes, like a bad case of desert fever. This somnolent pattern repeats through the runtime and combined with the sometimes glorious visuals, it makes for one of the most relaxing yet disorientating zombie films you’ll likely ever sit through.
What’s even more interesting however is that the version almost everyone has seen is actually a French cut, identifiable by the slumber-inducing synthesiser soundtrack. Franco actually filmed a Spanish version concurrently with altered scenes, new actors (including his muse Lina Romay), even a different soundtrack. This version (titled La Tumba de los Muertos Vivientes or Tomb of the Living Dead) is extremely rare today and considered lost, which is quite frustrating for Franco fans as it is commonly assumed to be the superior version, with better gore sequences, a stylistically appropriate soundtrack and a more coherent narrative. Some twenty minutes of footage is exclusive to this Spanish cut, though it also loses around two minutes of the French footage too. It seems that like the Nazi’s infamous treasure trove, the real thing will never be truly uncovered.
Franco’s necrotic desert horror was Eurociné’s final foray into the flesh-eating subgenre. While they briefly returned to cannibal territory in Jess Franco’s Diamonds of Kilimandjaro in 1983, it was more of a standardised jungle yarn with no cannibalism present, yet still using many of the tropes associated with the genre (jungle setting, white goddess, primitive tribes, imperialistic explorers, etc). The films remained low-key in the horror world, passed around via VHS tapes distributed across the globe, never achieving mainstream success but kept alive in a vibrant, enthusiastic horror community. Unexpectedly, the films were suddenly thrust into public scrutiny halfway through the ’80s in the UK, when a series of controversies over video packaging, advertisements and availability to the British public led to a famous ‘video nasties’ moral panic.
Copies of 72 films were seized by police forces intending to prosecute their distributors and video dealers further, whilst another 82 films were liable for seizure and eventual destruction. As bad luck would have it, prominent cannibal and zombie films among the vast horror sections in video shops of the era were all caught in the trawl, leading to films like The Evil Dead, I Spit On Your Grave and The Driller Killer being painted as evil in a video case by the vociferous media. Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter and Alain Dueruelle’s Cannibal Terror were both on the prosecutable list, with Franco’s film actually netting a successful prosecution, leading to the immediate withdrawal of the film from the shelves. Cannibal Terror was eventually dropped from the list but was still seized and destroyed in countless numbers. White Cannibal Queen (under the title Cannibals), Zombie Lake (under the strange Zombies Lake title) and Oasis of the Zombies were all seized and destroyed under the lesser charges of obscenity, relieving the dealers and distributors of personal responsibility.
It took many years until the advent of the DVD and digital distribution for these obscure flicks to find their way into the modern marketplace of media shops, online shopping and streaming services, both here in the UK and worldwide. Demand for cult entertainment has never been higher and those adventurous horror film buffs out there who have a taste for the weird, off-kilter and downright trashy could certainly chow down on these formerly-banned flesh-eating curios from Eurociné!
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