Color, 1978, 90m.
Directed by Jean Rollin
Starring Marie-Georges Pascal, Felix Martin, Serge Marquand, Mirella Rancelot, Brigitte Lahaie, Paul Bisciglia
Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Redemption (UK R0 PAL), Another World (Scandinavia R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Between his stylish vampire fantasies and less personal erotic films, director Jean Rollin pushed the French horror cinema in a new direction by introducing two new elements - zombies and explicit gore - to which he would return later with the deranged Zombie Lake and the more poetic The Living Dead Girl. The most traditional of his walking dead trilogy, The Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort) retains his slow, dreamlike pace while jolting viewers with unexpected bouts of bloodletting.
The episodic plot follows a harrowing day and night for young Elisabeth (Pascal) , who is journeying through the French countryside by train. Her companion falls prey to a bloodthirsty passenger, while she barely escapes with her life and dodges an undead shambler with a penchant for bashing his head against car windshields. She finds shelter in a nearby farmhouse inhabited by a man and wife, but alas her safety is short-lived when the farmer takes a pitchfork to his spouse on the kitchen table. Apparently their consumption of wine for the local vineyards is to blame, and soon the countryside is filled with the anguished, half-conscious victims of the grapes contaminated by chemical exposure. With the aid of two die-hard beer drinkers, Elisabeth fights back against the growing zombie population during an evening of unrelenting terror.
Along with the power of its individual sequences (particularly the memorable fate of a helpful blind girl), The Grapes of Death benefits from Rollin's increasing control of cinematic language within the horror medium. His skillful assembly of landscape shots and claustrophobic interiors creates an uneasy yet beautiful atmosphere, and he gains quite a bit of mileage in the furious third act from the presence of his most famous leading lady, Brigitte Lahaie, a former adult film star who steals the show with her two big scenes including a striking entrance that tips its hat to Mario Bava's Black Sunday. The bizarre, pulsating electronic score is also a notable change of pace, creating a hypnotic if somewhat unorthodox mood in the style of Tangerine Dream and very different from the jagged, sometimes psychedelic scores of Rollin's previous films.
Rollin was adamant on more than one occasion that he wasn't aping George Romero's Night of the Living Dead with this film, since the characters actually change locations frequently while the "zombies" are at least partially aware of what they're doing. That's actually a fair point; if anything, this is closer in spirit to another Romero film, The Crazies, pollinated with more than a dash of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. More than anything else, though, it's a Rollin film from his second horror wave and a solid introduction for any fright film fan curious about his work.
Unlike much of Rollin's output, The Grapes of Death has actually fared well consistently on home video since the early days of DVD (though its VHS history prior to that wasn't good at all). The first DVD out of the gate from Synapse was one of their best at the time, transferred from the original negative. The optional English subtitles are large, easy to read, and appear to be appropriately translated. Extras include the somewhat fragmented theatrical trailer, a Rollin bio, and video interviews with Rollin and Lahaie, both of whom offer some interesting insights into their horror careers, once one adjusts to their strong accents. Lahaie teamed up with Rollin again for two of her best lead roles in Fascination and The Night of the Hunted (with a final reunion years later in Fiancee of Dracula), making The Grapes of Death the start of another type of trilogy as well.
With well over a decade since that DVD, it was high time to revisit this film in HD given the loving attention given to Rollin's other favorites from Redemption and Kino Lorber. Their Blu-Ray edition (with a DVD reissue as well) looks extremely good, with the reds in particular looking more vivid and popping much more than NTSC could have allowed. The opening credits in particular look much more sharp and colorful, and the color grading overall looks a bit darker and more nocturnal in tone than before with greater detail in shadowy areas. As with past editions, the 1.66:1 framing looks accurate, and the English subtitles are optional and seem to be translated well.
The prior Rollin/Lahaie interview is replaced here with two Rollin video extras, a brief two-minute introduction and a great 49-minute video interview with Patrick Lambert and Frederick Durand recorded during his 2007 visit to Fantasia in Canada. It's not really geared to a particular film for the most part, instead covering his influences, cinematic techniques, and thoughts on French culture, with topics including slang terms for the guillotine, French noir fiction, and the "engulfing" qualities of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Also included are the original trailer and bonus Rollin trailers for Fascination, The Living Dead Girl, The Night of the Hunted, Zombie Lake, and Two Orphan Vampires, while Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas contributes a new set of liner notes discussing this film's pivotal placement in Rollin's filmography after his flirtation with adult filmmaking and his shift to a more commercially viable strain of horror film, with Lahaie joining him for the ride. Not only a must for Rollin fans, it's highly recommended for anyone who loves full-blooded European horror.
Reviewed on April 12, 2013.