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The Grapes of Death (Raisins de la mort, Les, 1978)

Jean Rollin

France

90 min, color, French (English subtitles)

Review © 2005 Branislav L. Slantchev

An oddly slow entry in the perennially entertaining genre of gore zombie horror, this Rollin film is a rare offering from France, a country not generally known for being a strong contender in this competition that is usually owned by Italians (and sometimes Americans). If you think Romero's dead are "deliberately paced," then steel yourself for this one for The Grapes of Death is a slow-motion rendition of the walking dead. It's not that the action itself is not explosive when it happens, it's just that the film spends too much time with people wandering in the fields.

The spreading of the pesticide Elizabeth's pleas for help go unheeded

But I am getting ahead of myself. The film opens with a few peasants spraying pesticide (although it's not clear why they are doing it along the dirt road instead of among the vines). One of them gets sick but is ordered back to work by his boss, Michael (Michel Herval). This rather unfeeling boss has a beautiful fiancee, Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), presently en route to join her hubby. Elizabeth and her friend Brigitte (Evelyne Thomas) are traveling on an eerily empty train across rural France when the sick worker gets on board at one of the stations. And soon all hell breaks loose: he murders Brigitte, then gets progressively more and more sick, with his face rapidly decaying and oozing green slime right in front of the horrified Elizabeth. When he tries to kill her too, she manages to get off the train and escapes into the countryside.

Lucien about to dispatch his daughter Lucy in the field with sapphires

As Elizabeth disappears into a tunnel, the pursuer stops, sits on the train tracks, and buries his head in his hands, obviously distraught at what has happened. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, a strange plague has stricken the region. It deforms people and drives them insane, causing them to go on bloody rampage, murdering everyone that looks healthy. But the progress of the disease is intermittent even if the final result is inevitable. The victims seem to retain much of their mental faculties long enough to realize what is happening to them, making the descent into murderous madness even more painful.

Elizabeth in a typical scene Lucy's dramatic ending

Elizabeth reaches a farm wherein she finds the father (Serge Marquand) and his daughter (Patricia Cartier) despondent and silent. They refuse her pleas for help and only her discovery of the corpse of a woman with a slit throat clues her in: the father has gone crazy too. As Elizabeth and the daughter attempt to escape, the father catches them, and his madness takes over. What follows is the first extremely graphic and memorable scene of the film: he rips apart his daughter's shirt revealing the depredations of the disease underneath: she is also sick! Unwilling to see her lose her mind and suffer like he does, the father grabs a pitchfork and impales his daughter. The camera lingers on the disturbingly realistic blades sticking out from the daughter's stomach: even as she breathes her last the instrument pinning her to the table remains motionless. With his last shreds of humanity, the father begs Elizabeth to finish him off, which she does by ramming him with his car.

Lucas about to guillotine his former love "Lucy, I love you"

Here is a first sight of what will become important later on: the disease does not affect the exterior equally for men and women. The scabs and the grotesque discharge that characterize the plague affect men much more severely than they do women who manage to retain a deceptively healthy exterior even as their brains also rot within. I do not know if Rollin intended this is a commentary on women (probably not), but it does allow them to appear as seductive companions who can turn around and murder one in an instant. The first other woman that Elizabeth meets, however, is unaffected but blind. Lucy is helplessly wondering among the scattered rocks of a barren landscape, having been told to leave the village to save her life.

Plague diagnostic Lucas has enough love for everyone

Elizabeth helps her find her way back to the village but they walk into a slaughterhouse: mutilated bodies strewn in the streets, houses burning, and no sign of a normal human being. Not wishing to frighten Lucy (Mirella Rancelot), Elizabeth tries to hide the truth but that only causes Lucy to distrust her, and the blind girl eventually runs away. The zombies emerge as the night falls and quickly track Lucy to the town square but for some reason just stay put and don't touch her. As it turns out, this is not because they have suddenly lost the lust for murder, but because her end is destined to be more horrific and painful than what they could have done. Lucy is eventually found by her ex Lucas (Paul Bisciglia) but he is one of the crazies. Lucy's final seconds make up the second famous scene of the film: Lucas crucifies her on the door of their house, and then slowly decapitates her in full sight of the transfixed Elizabeth. As he triumphantly lifts Lucy's severed head, the other zombies chant "Lucy, I love you." It is as disgusting as anything I have seen, and I have seen a lot of these movies.

Brigitte Lahaie with Cerberus Valota and Marten admiring the view...

Elizabeth is beset by the zombies too but a strange woman (Brigitte Lahaie) saves her. The woman is unsettling for she does not seem much concerned about the zombies roaming the streets outside and periodically trying to get in. Soon we learn why: when Elizabeth leaves the house with her, she suddenly grabs our protagonist from behind and summons the crazies to get her: she is one of them! But fortune smiles at Elizabeth when she is rescued by Paul (Felix Marten) and his friend (Patrice Valota), who shoot and blow up the plague-stricken villagers. They take Elizabeth with them (not before they are nearly done in by the duplicitous Brigitte who even strips naked for them to convince them that she is not sick). The trio makes its way to the vineyard where Elizabeth finds her boyfriend struggling with the first signs of the disease.

...the view they are admiring Writer Bouyxou wielding a scythe

What follows is the most bizarre ending one can imagine, which means it's something one could expect from Rollin. When Michael begs Elizabeth to stay away from him because he can go berserk any moment, she can only repeat "I love you" and when the slimy gore starts oozing from his forehead, she runs into his arms, unable to bring herself to see him as a goner or believe that he will kill her too. Or perhaps she is beyond caring at this point: she has spent the entire film on the run, being chased by awful crazies, witnessing the disgusting deaths of several people, and mostly fending for herself. Michael is her refuge from all this, and she intends to stay with him, even if it means forever.

Brigitte eventually marked herself 'Til death do us part

But Michael loves her too much to allow himself to hurt her, so when Paul shows up looking for Elizabeth, Michael hurls himself toward him, forcing Paul to shoot in self-defense. But this is too much for Elizabeth and she finally goes insane herself, albeit from the stress and grief for her lost love instead of the pesticide that has caused the plague. She takes the gun, and shoots both men who saved her only to take her hope away from her in the end. Paul dies uncomprehending with the words, "This is crazy," but it is not quite that hard to understand. The plague has destroyed everything inside Elizabeth and the final scene has her standing beneath Michael's corpse, with his blood dripping on her face.

Not one for sentimentality Elizabeth is lost

The Synapse DVD is very good, with a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is surprisingly good even if some damage to the source occasionally manifests itself. The dolby mono soundtrack is very crisp, making the creepy cheerful music the perfect companion to heavy breathing and footsteps, the two sound effects that dominate the film. One should not, of course, expect high production values in a Rollin film---hence all the abandoned ruins, the empty countryside, the "dead" visibly breathing, and the occasional man walking across a scene in the background (when Elizabeth meets Lucy in the field), and the rare crew member casting a shadow---so what we have here is basically as good as it gets. Fans of Eurotrash or the zombie genre should get a kick out of this, the special effects and the moody directing definitely making up for the lackadaisical pace. The disc also has an informative interview with Rollin, along with a filmography, a biography, and some stills.

November 3, 2005