Monday, 28 November 2022

The Grapes of Death (1978)

The Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort), released in 1978, was the first of Jean Rollin’s three zombie movies (the others being Night of the Hunted and The Living Dead Girl). OK, he also made Zombie Lake in 1981 but that one doesn’t count. He was just a director for hire on that film and he had zero interest in the project.

Rollin’s three zombie movies are probably the three most interesting zombie movies ever made. They’re not exactly conventional zombie movies and most crucially they’re zombie movies with an emotional element. We cannot see any of Rollin’s zombies as mere shambling flesh-eating monsters. We’re never allowed to forget that these were perfectly normal human beings with perfectly normal human hopes and fears and feelings. And Rollin’s zombies always retain a degree of humanity. His zombies suffer.

The Grapes of Death has a typical opening for a Rollin zombie movie. In a wine-growing district of France the vines are being sprayed with pesticide. It’s an experimental pesticide and it turns out to have disastrous effects. I don’t think Rollin was especially interested in giving us an environmentalist message. What he did like to do in his zombie films was to give us a totally rational plausible explanation for his zombies. In The Living Dead Girl it’s a chemical spill. For a man who made so many vampire movies Rollin had surprisingly little interest in the supernatural. In fact in The Nude Vampire he gives us a vampire movie with no supernatural elements at all, and most of his vampire films pretty much ignore the supernatural aspects of vampirism. They also ignore the religious and moral ramifications of vampirism. Rollin had other fish to fry.

Rollin’s zombie movies also had a genuinely tragic feel. His zombies are the result of human mistakes.

Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and her friend Brigitte (Evelyne Thomas) have left Paris by train. Brigitte is heading for Spain while Élisabeth is heading for the tiny village of Roubles in wine-making country. The train journey becomes a journey of horror. The shaken Élisabeth makes it to Roubles where she finds that everyone is suffering from some kind of disfiguring disease which turns them into mindless killers. But not entirely mindless. You don’t get many zombie movies in which a zombie brutally kills someone and then starts sobbing from the horror and shame of what he’s done.

Élisabeth asks for help from a man and his daughter only to find more horror. And a suicidal zombie.

Élisabeth does encounter one person who seems normal, a blind girl named Lucie (Mirella Rancelot). They take refuge in an abandoned house.

More horrors follow before Élisabeth meets a rather odd very attractive blonde woman (Brigitte Lahaie) who seems a bit evasive when questioned. The woman’s story sounds a bit strange but she offers to help Élisabeth escape from the village.

Two men show up, oddly unaffected by the madness.They’re armed and they’re out to kill zombies. They may represent salvation, but in this movie you can’t be entirely sure of anything.

The performances are generally good. Rollin always got effectively odd and mysterious performances from actresses. The standout performance comes from Brigitte Lahaie, largely because the woman she plays is a very Jean Rollin character. We just don’t know what’s going on with this woman and Lahaie conveys her enigmatic nature perfectly.

This movie, like The Living Dead Girl a few years later, sees Rollin moving into more overtly commercial territory. He’d figured out that audiences wanted zombies and they wanted gore. The Grapes of Death offers both and it is a full-blown horror movie. But it’s still a Rollin movie, with touches of characteristic Rollin atmosphere and at least a few hints of Rollin surrealism.

While superficially it seems like a straightforward zombie flick there are two things that make it very unconventional. Firstly, we’re not sure whether we really should be sympathising with the two vigilantes who are slaughtering every zombie they come across. Élisabeth voices the suggestion that maybe these are just sick people who could be cured. There is also of course the possibility that the homicidal madness is merely temporary. And these zombies still have self-awareness. They know that they are in the grip of homicidal madness and they’re tortured by guilt and remorse. The madness forces them to kill, but they don’t want to.

The second unconventional touch is the very Rollinesque enigmatic ending.

Rollin seems to have had a more generous than usual budget to work with. The makeup and the special effects are quite impressive. Technically this film compares favourably to any of the other zombie movies of its era.

The UK Black House Blu-Ray is barebones but the transfer is nice.

For my tastes this movie is not quite as interesting as Night of the Hunted and The Living Dead Girl. Those two movies packed an immense emotional punch. The Grapes of Death does have an emotional impact but it’s more diffuse, less personal. This is still vastly more interesting than most zombie movies. The Grapes of Death is not quite top-tier Rollin but it’s still very much worth seeing. For horror fans who haven’t sampled Rollin’s work this movie and The Living Dead Girl are the best place to start. They have other things going for them but they also work as straight-out gore-drenched horror films. Recommended.

1 comment:

Nine-Fingered Menace said...

When I first saw this movie, something about Lahaie very quickly had me screaming at the heroine "you're safer outside with the mob!" She does scary very well.