Written and Directed by: Jess Franco
Starring: Manuel Gelin, France Lomay, and Caroline Audret
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"What happened to him?"
"He met the walking dead."
"He met the walking dead."
Jess Franco is a somewhat infamous name in the world of horror, as he has been responsible for nearly 200 films during his career. His output has run the gauntlet of horror staples: exploitative sleaze, vampire films, demonic possession, etc. Heck, he even brought two horror legends together in Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. In the early 80s, Franco decided to make a contribution to the zombie boom that had begun with the release of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which spawned an array of European zombie films such as Fulci's Zombie, House by the Cemetery, and The Beyond along with a host of other Italian undead offerings. Not to be outdone by his Italian counterparts, Jess Franco unleashed Oasis of the Zombies upon the world.
The film begins with two a couple of girls in tight shorts wandering around a desert oasis. Gratuitous ass shots then ensue before Franco shows us some shots of the surrounding area, which includes something branded with a Nazi swastika. Before long, an unseen force attacks the girls, which sends us to the opening title sequence. Once the film resumes, we meet a World War II veteran that knows the location of some buried gold. He then reveals this information to his partner, who subsequently kills him off. The news soon travels to the veteran's son, Robert, who also learns the location of the gold from his father's diary, and the film reveals the veteran's backstory with a lengthy flashback sequence. Once we return to the present day, the veteran's partner and a group of his friends arrive at the desert oasis but are quickly dispatched by a horde of zombies. All the while, Robert and his group of friends have also decided to seek out the treasure and remain willfully ignorant of the oasis's undead inhabitants.
Let me get this out of the way right now: Oasis of the Zombies is by all accounts a terrible film. It's cheaply done, the story is barely coherent, and the acting is atrocious. However, if you're a fan of Franco, you probably expect this going in. It doesn't help that this narrative could probably be told in about half the time, so the 80 minute run-time kind of drags at time, especially during the long stretches where pretty much nothing happens. Indeed, there are lengthy sequences featuring characters walking that are either accompanied by silence or the film's droning, repetitive score. That said, some of these sequences do have an odd, trance-like quality, and even though the score isn't complex at all, it manages to draw you in and give the film a creepy vibe. Some might find it kind of boring, but there are times where it manages to be effective.
I've already alluded to the film's cheapness, which is usually a bad thing, but here, it kind of adds to the film's charm. I'm guessing Franco couldn't secure funding for enough lighting to shoot at night, which means everything is shot during daylight hours, including scenes that are obviously supposed to take place at night. You see, these zombies are unique in that they are seemingly vampiric, rising only when the sun sets (that's what I took from the film anyway). As such, the film doesn't exactly look well-made, aside from a couple of sequences featuring zombies walking across sand dunes as the sun sets in the background. There's also a surprisingly good action sequence during the aforementioned flashback sequence depicting a battle between Allied and German forces. For the most part, Franco's direction just seems barely competent, but these scenes really shine and shows what he's capable of. Also adding to the film's cheap feel is the inane dialogue and acting, particularly from the group of college "kids" (a term I'm using loosely, as at least one of them looks like he's pushing 40). I swear at one point that I heard one of the students tell the others "to make molotov cocktails, just like in school."
So, fans of Franco's Eurotrash know to expect all of the above, so let's get to the meat and potatoes of these types of films: the gore. Unfortunately, even this is a bit lacking. The zombie makeup is pretty well done, but the actual gore itself is barely there. Instead, most of the deaths involve a horde of zombies crowding their victim in the frame and overtaking them. However, the zombies aren't very menacing because they really rely on the stupidity of the characters within the film; instead of simply outrunning these slow-moving undead, most of the characters opt to just stand there in horror. Also, at the end of the film, instead of taking off in the fully-functional Jeep that brought them to the oasis, the kids decided to stay and fight. Nice. On the skin scale, there are some gratuitous shots of some girls, but it's not off the charts stuff like you see in a lot of Euro-horror.
Oasis of the Zombies has had an interesting release history. Originally released L'Abime des Morts Vivants in 1981, the film was re-released in 1983 as La Tumba des lost Muertos Vivientes. The version reviewed here is the former version, but there seems to be little difference between the two, outside of a few scenes. I'll admit that the first 30 minutes of the film really had me worried, but somewhere along the way, the film got watchable. Maybe it's the bizarre Eurotrash vibe that I find hard to resist, or maybe it's just so ludicrous that I couldn't help but like it a little bit. I caught the film as part of Mill Creek's "Chilling Classic" pack, and the print here ranged from nigh unwatchable to decent. The first 15 minutes are especially problematic, as the print jumps around like a worn out VHS. The sound is pretty decent throughout. Basically, the presentation is what you expect from a public domain release. Image Entertainment has given the film a DVD release that's no doubt better, if only because it preserves Franco's original aspect ratio, which is compromised in the Mill Creek release. The bottom line, however, is that Oasis of the Zombies is worth a look, especially if you already have it as part of a collection; only ardent, hardcore Eurotrash or Franco fans should actively seek it out on its own. Rent it!
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