The Grapes of Death
One of the more obscure filmmakers dedicated strictly to the horror genre (aside from occasional forays into flat-out porn), French director Jean Rollin is primarily known in the States because his film The Living Dead Girl was the inspiration for the Rob Zombie song of the same name.
However, that title was an anomaly in his oeuvre, in that his limited fame was achieved through his exercises in the sexy vampire sub-genre that was the rage during the ‘70s. With titles such as Requiem for a Vampire, Lips of Blood and The Nude Vampire, his films developed a small but devoted following, despite derisive critiques from even horror film apologists (Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film dismisses Requiem thus: “A lot of vampire movies with sex scenes were released in the ‘70s. This, however, is a sex film with vampire scenes.").
Because Rollin’s movies were never officially released to the U.S. market, for years his fans had to content themselves with fuzzy gray market dupes that only served to frustrate anyone seeking to get a handle on what he was all about. That is, until the advent of the DVD explosion, when British distributor Redemption released a handful of his titles in the format, discs that finally revealed how richly textured—despite obviously constricted budgets—his films really were, with a sense of languid melancholy belying an overwhelming sense of sorrow, of a yearning for things irretrievably lost.
For years the hardest Rollin’s title to track down has been Les Raisins de la Mort (The Grapes of Death). Briefly released in the States in the late ‘70s (as Pesticide) to capitalize on the international success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it isn’t exactly a zombie flick, but that is the closest sub-genre you could categorize it in.
It follows the trials of Elizabeth, a young woman traveling by rail across the French countryside, en route to meet with her fiancé, who runs a winery. Before she reaches her destination, however, she encounters a homicidal man who has just murdered her traveling companion and whose face disintegrates before her horrified eyes as he chases her off the train.
Lost in the rural expanse, the woman encounters various peasants who seem to have become trapped between life and death, driven mad by the pain of decaying alive and more than eager to throttle her and visit various abuses upon her body (implied by the fact that any uninfected individual she comes across in her adventure inevitably takes the proverbial bullet for her—by pitchfork, hatchet, or whatever lethal tool the living “dead” have at hand at the moment).
Finally, it is revealed that her fiancé has been pumping out wine tainted by pesticides, which has been consumed en masse earlier at a festival by the unfortunate villagers (talk about becoming dead drunk…).
This is easily one of Rollin’s most accessible films but may not be to the tastes of anyone weaned on Empty-Vee-styled horror flicks. But, for the discriminating palate, this is definitely recommended—leisurely paced, atmospheric, and with liberal dollops of gore and mayhem to boot, this is late-'70s horror at its best.
This neglected cult classic is finally available for the first time in the States through the efforts of fledgling Synapse Films, which is rapidly building a brilliant reputation for the retrieval and restoration of fringe films that otherwise might have fallen through the cracks (for more about the company’s library and goals, go to http://www.synapse-films.com/). It is a gorgeous-looking (and sounding) release, with an almost unheard of 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, digitally enhanced for widescreen televisions. It’s inn French, with optional English subtitles, and includes an interview with Rollin and star Brigitte Lahaie. It looks great—probably better than it did in the theater.