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The Grapes of Death(1978)
A young woman discovers that the pesticide being sprayed on vineyards is turning people into killer zombies.
For more about The Grapes of Death and the The Grapes of Death Blu-ray release, see the The Grapes of Death Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on April 19, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Brigitte Lahaie, Marie Georges-Pascal, Félix Marten
Director: Jean Rollin
» See full cast & crew
The Grapes of Death Blu-ray Review
Mine eyes have seen the gory...
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, April 19, 2013
Kino-Lorber and Redemption Films are back with another round of films by low-budget Euro-sleaze auteur Jean Rollin, best known for his many, many, many lesbian vampire movies. His penchant for sapphic bloodsuckers certainly defined his early career—which blended le fantastique and dreamy surrealism with campily erotic softcore—but by the late 1970s, Rollin had transitioned to shooting more straightforward grindhouse pornos, making eleven in two short years under the pseudonyms "Michael Gentil" and "Robert Xavier." His following three movies under his own name are among his most unusual, and show a willingness to explore some new thematic territory. 1978's The Grapes of Death is a kind of French-ified version of George Romero's The Crazies, the following year's Fascination looks at sanguinary obsession from a different and surprisingly elegant perspective, and 1980's The Night of the Hunted is a strange piece of proto-Cronenbergian psycho-oddity. Kino/Redemption released Fascination a few months ago, but this week we'll be taking a look at Grapes and Hunted.
The Grapes of Death sees the director getting into the then-lucrative gore/zombie movie sub-genre. Rollin being Rollin, however, his take on the subject matter is dreamier and slower-paced than that of many of his contemporaries. Grapes' title sequence opens in provincial France, where a team of farmhands is advancing through a vineyard, spraying pesticides and wearing ineffective-looking filter masks over their mouths. As the film's title appears over a close-up freeze-frame of one of the workers, Kowalski, we hear only the man's labored breathing. Later, when he nearly falls off of his tractor and complains to his supervisor, Michel (Michel Herval), that his lymph nodes feel swollen, we're clued in to the horrors to come. Michel says new airtight masks for the workers should be arriving soon, but soon—of course—isn't soon enough.
Rollin then takes us onboard a train nearly deserted except for our brunette protagonist, Elizabeth (Marie Georges-Pascal), and her blonde best friend, traveling together on holiday. They remark on how eerie it is to be alone on the train, and it is eerie, all long corridors and empty compartments. It gets even spookier when a single passenger boards at the stop nearest the vineyard and proceeds to sit directly across from Elizabeth while her friend is in the restroom. It's Kowalski, and we notice along with Liz the rotting, oozing lesion on his neck, which quickly spreads to his face. She flips out and runs from her compartment toward the water closet—with Kowalski in shambling pursuit—only to find that her friend has already been murdered. Elizabeth pulls the brake line, hops off the train, and crosses an ominously foggy bridge into the village surrounding the vineyard, where the rest of the film will take place.
The villagers have all been infected by a disease that causes them to sprout nasty flesh wounds and mentally deteriorate over time, progressing from conscious-but-uncontrollably-violent to mindless, shuffling drones. They're not the undead, exactly, but they're definitely zombies of a type. Basically, they have a toned-down version of the "rage virus" from 28 Days Later, and Elizabeth will spend the majority of the movie darting from the safety of one stone farmhouse hovel to another, trying to avoid these blank-eyed automatons.
The film plays out in a series of episodic encounters with both the afflicted and the few rare uninfected folks still hanging around. When Elizabeth storms in on a farmer with a putrescent hand having an awkwardly silent dinner with his daughter, she tries to aid the girl's escape, only to see her speared below her breast with a pitchfork, Rollin's camera zooming in on her torn open blouse to give us a leering closeup of the pierced flesh. Elizabeth isn't much help to anyone, really, and those she attempts to assist all end up dead. In the film's most memorable sequence, she guides a blind woman through town, looking for the woman's caregiver. When they finally find him, he crucifies his former charge upon a wooden door, decapitates her with a hatchet—as arterial blood spurts in gooey arcs—and then carries her (obviously fake) head around by the hair like a grotesque lantern. It might be the biggest gross-out practical effects gag of Rollin's career. There's also a great—if unintentionally hilarious—scene with a ghoul who bludgeons his pus-covered forehead against a car window until the glass shatters. Oh, and stick around for the appearance of softcore actress and Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie, who's essentially in here for a little gratuitous T&A.
The Grapes of Death makes a decent entry point into Rollin's filmography; it has many of his eccentricities and preoccupations—a heavy funereal vibe, crumbling buildings, out-of-nowhere nudity—with a story that's perhaps more easily accessible for the uninitiated than some of his earlier movies. Where his 1960s vampire films seem to exist in a strange and flighty alternate fairytale universe, The Grapes of Death—with its environmentalist premise and the occasionally political dialogue between two farmers that Elizabeth ultimately teams up with—feels more rooted in the real world and carries more of a visceral impact. Just be aware that this isn't a George Romero-style zombie picture; in typical Rollin fashion, Grapes meanders, more concerned with atmosphere than action or even story.
The Grapes of Death Blu-ray, Video Quality
If you've been following Kino-Lorber and Redemption Films' series of Jean Rollin releases, you'll already know what to expect from The Grapes of Death's Blu-ray treatment—a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of a print that's essentially presented "as-is." White and black specks, bits of debris, small scratches—the age-related damage is near-constant. As regrettable as it may be, no one is going to spend the time and money to do a frame-by-frame restoration of a niche title like this. As I've argued before, though, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. For one, the gritty print does enhance the mood of the film in a way—it has a grimy authenticity—and two, the lack of any digital cleanup means less room for other picture quality blunders like overzealous digital noise reduction and edge enhancement, neither of which are present here. The simple act of remastering the movie in high definition yields wonderful results. While there are plenty of amateurishly out-of-focus shots, clarity is greatly improved from DVD, and color is vibrant and stable, with good contrast and image density. The Grapes of Death certainly looks better on Blu-ray than it has since it first made the rounds on Europe's grindhouse circuit.
The Grapes of Death Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Like the print, the The Grapes of Death's uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 audio track also has its age-related issues, although none are overtly detrimental to the viewing experience. You'll hear a low-level hiss that's near constant for the duration of the film, accompanied by occasional crackles and splice pops, but again, this seems appropriate somehow considering the subject matter. I just don't know if I'd even want a Jean Rollin movie to sound pristine, you know? I do love the film's score—all organs and synthesizers doing eerie minor key arpeggios—and the music has has a wobbly, textured quality that's perfectly creepy. Since the film was shot silently, the French dialogue was all dubbed in post, and it's bright and fairly clear at the top of the mix. The disc includes optional English subtitles.
The Grapes of Death Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Grapes of Death Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
One of the more unusual zombie movies of the 1970s, The Grapes of Death makes up its own rules for the afflicted-but-not-quite-undead and shambles along at Jean Rollin's typically dreamy, unhurried pace. Still, compared to some of the director's earlier and more surreal films, this one is practically commercial. Consequently, The Grapes of Wrath makes a good entry point into Jean Rollin's body of work. Kino-Lorber and Redemption Films deliver another "as is" Blu-ray transfer—the print is covered in debris and the audio has its own age-related issues—but this is certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video, and I'm glad someone is taking the time and effort to release these cult titles in high definition.
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