Jess Franco must be one of the most frustrating directors I know: every time when I think I should just give up on him after sitting through three of four atrocious pictures, you get something like `Oasis of the Zombies', which makes you realize just why you sat through the previous duds. There's no director more unreliable than Franco, but when you think about it this may not be so strange after all. When you look at even the most talented directors in the world, like Sternberg, Hitchcock or Fellini, in the end they didn't make more than, say 10-20 films that were really great, if that. So it's obviously not fair to expect something else from Jess Franco and the only problem is of course he made so many of them! The sifting through can be rather tiresome at times, but I suppose it goes with the territory and ultimately makes those few pearls all the more satisfying.
Watching this immediately after `Zombie Lake', the first thing that really surprised me was that this blu-ray looks even better than the Rollin and I still can't believe how good this actually looks! From the rich vibrant colors of the beginning to the muted browns and grays of the unforgettable climax, this is a very consistent and pleasing transfer, making it one of Franco's most satisfying movies on a purely visual level. My favorite Franco movies tend to be his more abstract and meditative ones (think `Succubus', `Countess Perverse' or `Macumba Sexual'), so this is just my cup of tea. I realize however that I always seem to be one of the few who see it this way, as most people seem to hate precisely those movies I tend to love, and `Oasis of the Zombies' seems to be no exception.
Part of the problem seems to lie in expectation patterns and what you could term esthetic baggage: people always have a hard time swallowing a movie when it doesn't conform to what it seemed to be on the surface. Besides that, I've always found a well-developed sense of avant-garde or experimental film has served me extremely well when watching exploitation, because it makes it so much easier to wrap your head around the more abstract ones when you realize a movie is so much more than just drama, story or action. I'm not at all saying exploitation and the avant-garde are one and the same, but I am saying they are often much more closely linked than most people seem to notice, especially because they find common ground in their mostly limited budgets and often the willingness to go much further than mainstream cinema would ever tolerate. The line between exploitation and avant-garde is so often perilously thin.
Which would already explain the limited appeal of something like `Oasis of the Zombies', because people would be much better served to approach this movie as more in the spirit of, say, Nathaniel Dorsky than George Romero. One of the most obvious signifiers Franco is not looking to make `just' another zombie movie, is his use of fragments from another movie. He rather obviously uses whole stretches of some big budget war movie, which in spirit seems to be much closer to the avant-garde practice of found-footage than it is to the common Hollywood trait of using stock footage. Rollin uses it too in `Zombie Lake', and while both his and Franco's use of borrowed material are obviously motivated by economic factors, they result in something quite different: in `Zombie Lake' the cut between the stock footage and his own is just jarring, because it never even comes close to matching. The same goes for Franco, but he goes one step further and pushes it to delirious extremes, giving the movie something of an instant feeling of termite art - to borrow Manny Farber's famous phrase. The result is much closer to Gustav Deutsch's `Film Ist.' than it is to Ed Wood.
The rest of the movie is such an obvious Zen-like meditation on the genre than it is a straightforward zombie flick and I think it would be very useful to compare `Oasis of the Zombies' to Franco's brilliant take on the slasher film, `Bloody Moon' - both from the same year. In the latter, Franco more or less explodes to genre by pushing everything to its most extreme, while with `Oasis' he goes exactly the opposite way and seems more interested in imploding than exploding. He strips the genre completely to the bone, leaving nothing of the genre except its clichés and iconography, barely there except in skeletal fashion. It resembles a tabula rasa more than any genre film I've ever seen.
If I had to give a description of this movie it would have to be something like "Nicholas Ray's `Bitter Victory' by way of Alain Robbe-Grillet", which probably sounds very outlandish, but then again, `Oasis of the Zombies' is a very outlandish movie - in a very subtle way. There's more than a touch of Ray in this film, especially his triptych `Bitter Victory', `Wind Across the Everglades' and `The Savage Innocents' with their common theme of man fighting both himself and the elements of nature and the question whether or not to give up in the face of so much adversity. But trying to push this point too hard doesn't really get you anywhere, because Franco is either unable or unwilling (it really doesn't matter which) to truly develop these themes which I suppose is both his fatal flaw for most mainstream critics as it is what makes him great. As with most of his movies, `Oasis of the Zombies' is almost maddeningly underdeveloped, almost a rotting corpse itself instead of a healthy human body, to use a rather obvious metaphor.
And this is probably the most subversive (and most overlooked) aspect of Franco's oeuvre: his seemingly total disregard for his audience. Because a movie like `Oasis of the Zombies' begs the question: who was this made for? Obviously not the legions of sexploitation and horror fans who always tend to have a very hard time when something promises to be sex or horror but turns out to be something else entirely. If Franco doesn't deliver the goods in terms of tits and ass or splatter, but instead takes the abstract route, he's deliberately alienating exactly those people who form his fan base. But even as most genre aficionados tend to be confounded by Franco's more abstract movies, they are obviously much too sleazy or at least not `serious' enough for most lovers of experimental cinema. Which of course gets him in almost the exact same position as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Walerian Borowczyk always have been: that strange shadowy neverland between art and sleaze, which unfortunately so few people can seem to navigate. In the end, I can't help but be constantly reminded of Ross Care's very apt description of Ken Russell's utterly crazy `Lisztomania': "a sadly dangling, brilliant film in search of an audience that perhaps does not even exist."
Score: 9 out of 10