Film Review: The Grapes of Death (1978)

SYNOPSIS:

Jean Rollins’ acclaimed cult horror film Grapes of Death stars Brigitte Lahaie as a woman whose vacation takes a horrific turn when she finds herself in a town full of zombie-like killers. Fighting to stay alive, she begins to think the town winery has got something to do with these evil transformations. Could the pesticides used on the grapes be responsible for all this madness?

REVIEW:

After several years of directing P*rnography under the pseudonyms Michel Gentil and Robert Xavier, cult French director Jean Rollin returned to filmmaking in 1978 with The Grapes of Death (known in its native French as Les Raisins de La Mort). Although he had made several successful pictures earlier in his career, this was his first effort with a “real” budget. It’s also his first to truly utilize special effects; although tame by today’s standards, some hail it as the first French gore film. Rollin did not let these newfound amenities go to waste.

Elizabeth’s (Marie-Georges Pascal) trip to see her fiance (Michel Herval) at the vineyard where he’s working proves to be much more difficult than she ever could have anticipated. She spends a good portion of her journey befriending people, watching them die at the hands of zombie-like creatures and then running to the next location, where the cycle repeats. The first instance occurs aboard a train when a creepy man with a profusely-bleeding neck wound begins chasing after her. She flees to a nearby village, where the formula begins again, as it does again later in the film. Although redundant at times, the story throws viewers for a loop; the acquaintances come and go so quickly that it’s obvious screenwriters Rollin and Christian Meunier are unafraid to kill off established supporting characters.

The redundancies and lack of character development (somehow, we know less about Elizabeth than all of the ancillary characters) bog down the film’s already-slow pace, but the ever-present infected people keep things interesting. These rabid, lumbering monsters are not quite Romero zombies (the film is often compared to Night of the Living Dead, although I believe it shares more in common with Romero’s The Crazies), but they do share several similarities. In addition to murderous tendencies, the infection also causes their bodies to decompose and ooze various bodily fluids, ranging from crimson blood to yellow pus to black bile.

Redemption Films’ new Blu-ray presentation of The Grapes of Death looks better than ever. The print – mastered in HD from an original 35mm negative – shows some damage from age, as does the audio, but no one is going to complain about the upgrade. Seeing the film in high definition does, however, make several out-of-focus shows much more glaring. It’s presented with French audio and English subtitles.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a brief introduction by Rollin shot in 1998; a lengthy interview with Rollin from 2007 in which he discusses his literary influences; trailers and a booklet. The latter is actually the best of the bonuses. It features a well-written and well-researched essay titled “Anti-Virgins & Anti-Vampires: The Anti-Rollin of Jean Rollin” by Tim Lucas. It would have been better suited as an in-depth commentary track, but its story behind The Grapes of Death (and Night of the Hunter, another new Rollin Blu-ray from Redemption) is interesting to have in any form.

The Grapes of Death is not Rollin’s best movie, but it’s a relatively strong effort that contains some of his creepiest imagery. It’s decidedly more conventional than his earlier work, but it still maintains the surrealistic elements for which Rollin became known. The Grapes of Death makes a good entry point for horror fans looking to familiarize themselves with Rollin’s storied catalogue, as it’s arguably his most traditional genre effort.

The Grapes of Death (1978)

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