Kino Lorber // 1978 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // April 28th, 2013
When the wine flows, the terror begins.
I've said it before, but I love Jean Rollin, the director of such French cult oddities like Requiem for a Vampire and Demoniacs. As big a fan as I am, though, I find it important to warn people that straying from his Sapphic vampire wheelhouse invites the strong possibility of watching a real piece of garbage. He made a lot of movies over his long career, and has been burned plenty of times, but it's not always true. Take, for example, The Grapes of Death, Rollin's first entry in the zombie genre. It's definitely not your average undead flick, but that's far from surprising from a director whose films all share the adjective "strange." It is, though, one of the best films he ever made and, arguably, his only true horror film. And now, this oozing piece of weirdness is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and Redemption Films.
Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal, Je suis frigide...pourquoi?) is travelling by train to visit her fiance, who runs a vineyard in the French countryside. At a random stop, a man sporting a weeping sore boards the train and, after killing her travelling companion, stalks Elisabeth until she runs from the train. After a long walk through the middle of nowhere, she finds herself at a tiny village overrun by freaks, covered in sores, with insane and murderous intentions coming after her. Now, she must escape their disgusting clutches so she can finally reach her beloved.
After a few years masquerading as Michel Gentil and mired in porno-land, Jean Rollin was finally given a budget to make a real horror film. As zombies were the Euro-horror favorite at the time, it made sense to make his mark on the genre. It's no surprise to find that mark is far different from his Italian or American counterparts and that, despite some fundamental problems with the movie, is more enjoyable than most of them.
For one thing, these aren't your average zombies risen from the grave. Instead, they've been poisoned by the new fertilizer in the wine, causing the awful oozing rashes and turning them insane. By the time Elisabeth arrives on the scene, the entire place has been overrun with them and even the few people who seem like they might be able to help have secrets they're just about to reveal. The only one who isn't looking to kill her on sight is a blind girl, who isn't much help at all given that she doesn't even realize there's a problem and is soon dispatched in the bloodiest (and possibly fakest looking) scene of the director's career.
Luckily, two beer-loving farm workers arrive with guns looking to shoot on sight and save Elisabeth before she reached her doom. The ordeal isn't over, though, because she insists on finding her boyfriend to make sure he's okay before leaving, meaning that there's only more horror in store.
By far, The Grapes of Death is Rollin's most violent production and, between beheadings and seeping skin, there's plenty to turn the weaker stomachs out there. Its environmental message is strange for a zombie movie, but it makes an odd amount of sense such that I'm surprised it hasn't been mined today given people's obsessions over fertilizers and GMOs. The politics don't end there, though, as Elisabeth's two saviors wind up having a long, out of place conversation relating this incident to Fascism and freedom fighting during the war. It's a weird aside, but oblique political references are nothing new in a Rollin film.
As different as The Grapes of Death is from most of his body of work, there are plenty of standard Rollin business that fans will appreciate. Gorgeous countryside, obscure storytelling, and random nudity from Rollin favorite (in both his mainstream and adult work) Brigitte Lahaie (Fascination) are the good parts, while continuity errors and a few ridiculous issues with focusing are the bad. Together, though, this is a zombie movie that is distinctly Rollin and, even with all the problems, I love it. Few zombie movies are this much fun.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of The Grapes of Death, presented on the Redemption Films label, falls basically in line with what they have done with the other Jean Rollin films in the line. The HD upgrade makes the film look a whole lot nicer, especially in the crispness of the gorgeous landscapes. The colors are sharper and black levels are much deeper than any release that I've seen, but there are still problems. Of course, no amount of restoration can fix the scenes that are out of focus, but there are plenty of instances of dirt and scratches throughout the film. It's not as bad as past releases, but it's clear they did little to clean up the print. The 2.0 mono sound mix fares about as well. It's as crisp and clean as I've ever heard it, with well-defined dialog and eerie musical score. It has its problems, too, however. There isn't a lot of dynamic range, with a low level hiss and a few crackles here and there. Still, this is as strong as it's ever sounded, so I can't complain too much.
Extras are scant, but good. A short introduction from Rollin opens the film, and he returns for a near-hour long interview about his literary influences, recorded a couple of years before his passing, which are wide and varied. Rollin was a very interesting character and it's most definitely worth viewers' time. Euro-sleaze expert Tim Lucas provides his usual interesting essay (though it's the same one that appears for Night of the Hunted, and tackles both films), while a trailer for this and other Rollin works fill out the disc.
Wonky continuity and occasional focus problems aside, The Grapes of Death is the best non-vampire movie Jean Rollin ever made. His bizarre vision of a zombie film has many of the director's idiosyncrasies, plus a whole lot more violence than anything he put out before or since. It's a fun piece of work that looks better than ever here. Any self-respecting Rollin fan (do those exist?) should be quite pleased with this Blu-ray edition.
Not guilty. A votre sante!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated