Oasis of the Zombies / Oasis of the Living Dead / Treasure of the Living Dead / Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies / Le Trésor des Morts Vivants / L’Abîme des Morts Vivants (1983) -**½
Most of the time, confusion over Jesus Franco’s movies arises because a single film was released in several drastically different edits, with each version emphasizing a different aspect of the story. The most obvious example is probably The Bare-Breasted Countess, in which the basic softcore porn edit (most readily available today under the title Female Vampire) was accompanied by both a hardcore version (usually seen as The Loves of Irina in the United States) and a cold-shower version downplaying the sexual content in favor of a more traditional horror-movie approach (the increasingly rare Erotikill). But with Oasis of the Zombies, the headaches came from the opposite direction. In 1983, Franco shot simultaneously a pair of nearly identical zombie movies, one for the French market, and the other for his native Spain. I have no idea why. What I do know is that it’s taken a good twenty years to untangle the question of whether the movie best known in the English-speaking world as Oasis of the Zombies was originally the French L’Abîme des Morts Vivants (“Oasis of the Living Dead”) or the Spanish La Tumba de los Muertos Vivientes (“Grave of the Living Dead“)— or, for that matter, whether there really was any significant difference between the two European films at all! It now appears that yes, they are different, and that the movie Americans have been watching on home video since the mid-1980’s was the French production. And since only the most deranged of Euro-horror fans (myself, for example) could possibly have any desire to see both, it makes perfect sense that only one or the other of Franco’s two early-80’s Afrika Korps gut-munchers would receive any overseas release. I kind of wish we’d gotten the other one, though, because it’s hard to imagine Grave of the Living Dead being any worse than this, and the Spanish version featured Lina Romay getting chewed on by the undead in place of the much less appealing Myriam Landson.
Those of you who have seen Zombie Lake (for which Franco wrote the screenplay) will undoubtedly experience nagging hints of déjà vu throughout Oasis of the Zombies. For example, the first thing that happens is the deaths of two girls who have driven out from Tripoli to an oasis several miles off in the surrounding desert, about which the locals tell all sorts of ominous stories. Apparently, the place was the site of a major battle during World War II, and is now haunted by the restless spirits of the slain Wehrmacht troops. In point of fact, the oasis is infested with zombies rather than ghosts, but the ultimate effect on Moustache Girl and her considerably more attractive friend is the same. It may be sand instead of water, two victims instead of one, and taking a walk in tiny little cutoff blue jeans instead of skinny-dipping, but in its essentials, this is the same opening scene Franco wrote for Jean Rollin three years before.
Next, we join Colonel Kurt Maitzell (Henri Lambert, from East of Berlin— another Franco film which uses the very same stock battle footage we’ll be seeing later on) and his wife (Myriam Landson) in downtown Tripoli, as the colonel goes to meet with an old acquaintance of his. Kurt Maitzell and Captain Robert Blabert Sr. (The Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’s Javier Maiza) know each other from their war service— Maitzell had been one of Erwin Rommel’s subordinates, while Blabert had fought for the other side. In fact, Blabert is the sole survivor of a battle in which an allied commando team wiped out a detachment of Maitzell’s men, who had been assigned to transport some $6,000,000 worth of gold across the Libyan desert. There’s every reason to imagine the gold is still there amid the dunes, and Maitzell now wants to enter into partnership with his former adversary to recover the lost treasure for their own personal enrichment. Or that’s what he says, anyway; actually, Kurt kills Robert the moment the latter man points out the site of the long-ago battle, then speeds off with his wife to get down to business.
A bit later, in London, Robert’s college-student son, also named Robert (Manuel Gélin, from Joy and Venus on Fire), receives word of his parent’s death, and decides to embark at once for Tripoli. While he’s getting his stuff together for the journey, Robert Jr. finds his father’s wartime diary, wherein he recorded the tale of his mission to intercept the Nazi gold convoy. This triggers an extremely long and awkwardly placed flashback (just like the one in Zombie Lake), consisting to a great extent of stock battle footage from some much more heavily capitalized movie. We learn several things because of this flashback. First, it turns out that Robert Blabert Sr. was no younger in 1943 than he was in 1983 (giving him something in common with Howard Vernon’s Zombie Lake character). Second, we learn that Robert Jr. was conceived during the war as a consequence of a tryst between Robert Sr. and Ayesha (Doris Regina, from Orgy of the Nymphomaniacs and Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties), the daughter of a sheik (Antonio Mayans, from Devil Hunter and City of the Walking Dead) who rescued him from the desert after the battle. Again, this bears more than a little resemblance to something from the Zombie Lake script. And as the final and most telling point of similarity, Robert’s conception in 1943 ought to make him nearly 40 years old, when in fact he is, at most, in his early twenties. I suppose that’s better than being ten years old after 30-odd years, but only by a little bit. Anyway, Robert quickly recounts the story of the lost gold for his friends, Ronald (Eric Viellard), Sylvia (Caroline Audret), and Ahmed (Miguel Ángel Aristu, of Pick-Up Girls and The Night of Sincere Sex), and the prospect of a huge, unexpected windfall convinces them to accompany him on his Libyan adventure.
Meanwhile, Colonel Maitzell, his wife, and two guys we’ve never seen before are pulling up to the cursed oasis in Kurt’s Land Rover. They pitch camp, do a little bit of perfunctory digging, and then turn in for the night. The hired muscle— whose dubbed voices are astonishing— stay up after their bosses have gone to bed, discussing two mutually exclusive ways of shafting the Maitzells. One guy wants to ditch them in the desert and take all the gold; the other wants to flee the oasis at top speed, crying like a little bitch all the way back to town. We soon see which one has the right idea, for the undead Nazis now rise from their graves beneath the dunes, killing everyone but Kurt. The colonel escapes with seemingly minor injuries, but we all know what comes of zombie bites in movies like this one.
Sure enough, Colonel Maitzell holds out just long enough to get back to Tripoli and place himself where Robert and his friends can stumble upon his death throes. Kurt’s death, incidentally, interrupts the Brits’ seemingly unmotivated efforts to endear themselves to anthropologist Professor Denikan (Albino Gratziano, from Mansion of the Living Dead and Erotic Symphony), his apparently nameless colleague (Jeff Montgomery, I think), and their cute blonde assistant, Erika (France Lomay, of High Test Girls and Pussy Talk 2). No sooner has Maitzell shuffled off this mortal coil than that sheik from the flashback shows up and directs a bunch of his followers to burn the corpse. (The sheik, by the way, has aged at least slightly since the early 40’s, in the sense that the makeup department has dyed gray streaks in his hair and outfitted him with a big, ridiculous-looking moustache.) This, the sheik explains, is because the man died of injuries inflicted by the living dead, dooming him to rise again as one of them unless his body is promptly destroyed.
The sheik’s tales of flesh-eating zombies will not deter Robert and company from seeking out the evil oasis. Neither, for that matter, will they be dissuaded by the discovery of Denikan, Erika, and Dr. Otherguy— all of them badly bitten up and unconscious from blood loss— among the towering palms once they reach their destination. In fact, our heroes not only don’t believe the Denikan party’s native guide when he blames the damage on an army of the walking dead (“The living dead! The zombies! The zombies that came out of the sand which is there!”— it actually sounds more like “The zombies that came out of the sandwiches there!” the way the dubbing actor says it), but go so far as to discount Denikan’s zombie story after the anthropologist and his companions recover sufficiently to say anything! (And if you’re wondering why Denikan and the rest don’t turn zombie the way Maitzell did, then I suggest you ask Jesus Franco, and not me.) I don’t know about you, but I have now officially lost whatever sympathy I might ever have had for this bunch of useless knobs. Bring on the zombies, man— time’s a-wasting!
Believe it or not, there’s one scene in Oasis of the Zombies that’s actually pretty damn good. When the dead rise from the sand for the climactic attack on the would-be salvagers, the images of the zombies shambling in silhouette over the sand dunes are strikingly effective. It took me completely by surprise, and left me wondering what in the hell Franco had been doing during the whole rest of the movie, which is by turns boring and charmingly dumb. But on the other hand, at no point does Oasis of the Zombies sink down to the level of Zombie Lake, primarily because the zombies themselves (while hardly impressive for the most part) are at least a little bit better than a bunch of extras wearing haphazardly applied green paint. Franco’s zombies here are an extremely varied bunch, actually. The best ones just have a bit of flaky dehydration makeup applied to their skin— subtle, but effective. One looks like a refugee from I Eat Your Skin, with false eyes painted onto the muck he wears plastered all over his face. My favorites (because they’re far and away the worst of the lot) are the one zombie that’s nothing but a crude and mostly immobile puppet, and the guy with the misaligned glass eyes whose mouth is frozen in a position suggesting that he choked to death while giving some hugely endowed man a blowjob. Of course, the slight superiority of Oasis of the Zombies over Zombie Lake cuts both ways. Since it is precisely the comprehensive wretchedness of the earlier movie that accounts for its appeal, it might be taken as unfortunate that Oasis of the Zombies fails to equal it.