Here’s one for zombie completists – Jean Rollin’s The Grapes of Death aka Les Raisins de la Mort, so much better at being a zombie movie than his actual zombie movie Zombie Lake (reviewed here). Some bad, bad grapes are producing some bad, bad wine, making anyone who drinks it into a rapidly-decaying murderous psychopath. Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) gets on the wrong train at the wrong time and finds herself stranded in the French countryside, defending herself against wine-crazed villagers. It’s simple, and for Jean Rollin, certainly more on the accessible side than many of his dreamy, sexed-up, cheapie chillers.
I can’t help but think it has some subtext too, just going off of French stereotypes as a people obsessed with wine. I don’t know how regularly Rollin drank, but a strong case could be made that The Grapes of Death has a message about how drinking to excess transforms us into monsters. In a country where table wine is as ubiquitous as water, The Grapes of Death may have had more meaning and weight than its lurid monster movie approach would suggest. As an American, I can only guess at it, without providing any deeper thoughts than, “Huh. That’s interesting.”
The biggest weakness of the film is that it climaxes too early, when Elisabeth comes across a blind woman who is desperately searching for her husband amidst all the chaos. Actual tension is created, and Rollin pays it off with a horrific (though not 100% realistic) moment of gore that’s not typical of his work. It’s truly shocking, and from there to its conclusion, the film coasts to a resolution without ever ratcheting things back up. Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie, a magnetic, statuesque blonde who’s always down for whatever Rollin throws at her, shows up in the last half to spice things up as a clear-cut antagonist to Elisabeth, but the film never fulfills the potential of its more interesting, more suspenseful first half.
Still, this one is more typical of what we expect from a horror film than Rollin’s usual more avant-garde tales. The plot is engaging and weird, and we care about Elisabeth’s survival. Not to mention, there’s more gross stuff here than erotic stuff (and Rollin is way more interested in the erotic stuff, judging from his body of work). This wouldn’t be a bad intro to Rollin, if you’re into euro-horror from this time period. It’s not as good overall as The Living Dead Girl (reviewed here), but it’s certainly more interesting than some of the other zombie films from this era. When Rollin makes films that aren’t for himself, playing to his own interests, things can get a little dicey. Even though The Grapes of Death is missing many of the director’s favorite motifs and themes, it still seems like he’s trying to deliver a worthwhile horror film (unlike Zombie Lake).
The title is new to Kino’s Redemption Euro-horror line and features their typical exemplary picture quality. These Blus are the best way to see Rollin’s work. He’s too often dismissed as trash, but when you watch these films on Blu-ray, you can see that at the very least, Rollin had an eye for beautiful compositions and amazing locales. Kino has included an introduction and interview with the late director in the special features of the disc, and there’s a 16-page booklet as well, by author and Rollin fan Tim Lucas.