There must have been something in the water in Europe during the 1970s. It would explain the proliferation of excellent zombie movies that came from the continent during that period. Of course we all know about the Italians, especially Lucio Fulci. But in recent months, I've been delving beyond them, and discovering one gem after another. First it was Tombs of the Blind Dead. Then The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. And now, I've finally got around to checking out Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death, "the first French gore film."
An enthralling cross between arthouse and grindhouse, it really is quite a unique picture, and I'm glad the recent publicity around its newest DVD release led me to it. I'm also glad I was able to look past the ridiculous title, surpassed in ridiculosity only by its original French title, Les Raisins de la Mort. If you can refrain from snickering long enough to start the DVD, I assure you the snickering will stop shortly thereafter.
In the tradition of some of the previously referenced European offerings, the film feels like some kind of living nightmare, and most of the often-bizarre editing choices used throughout only add to that sense. Despite its status as "the first French gore film," it isn't wall-to-wall blood and guts. Rather, its structured in a much more effective way. Time and again, pastoral scenes of the French countryside lull the viewer into a sense of calm, only to be punctuated by moments of shockingly graphic violence that are over as abruptly as they arrived. It's a jarring experience, and I mean that in a good way. A crucifixion/beheading sequence is particularly unforgettable.
Plus, it's a plot only the French could've come up with: A pesticide used to spray grapes at a local winery causes anyone who drinks the resultant wine to be transformed into hideous, vicious quasi-zombies. It's filled with striking imagery, including a final shot that's bound to stay with you--even more so when you discover, as I did, that the movie's star, Marie-Georges Pascal, committed suicide seven years after the film's release.
Rollins may not be one of the greatest directors in the genre, and yes he did make some porn flicks earlier in his career. But he's far from the hack sleaze ball one would thus imagine. Rather, he's a man with a genuine love of the horror genre--having grown up on the Universal classics--who, after having to make some poor choices earlier on in order to keep fed, finally got the chance to make the kind of movies he always wanted to make, and ran with it.
One of the results is The Grapes of Death. If you're a fan of '70s-style horror, and Euro-horror in particular, and you haven't already seen it, do so immediately.
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