Alongside Night of the Hunted, Kino Lorber and Redemption recently released Jean Rollin’s Les Raisins de la mort aka The Grapes of Death (1978) on Blu-ray as part of their ongoing Rollin series. One of Rollin’s most popular and accessible films, here he diverted from his series of surreal vampire erotica movies for this moody, atmospheric take on the zombie subgenre.
Like many of Rollin’s films, Grapes of Death follows a loose plot. A young girl, Elizabeth, is traveling by train through the French countryside, but she and her friend are attacked by a strange, diseased figure. Her friend is killed and she flees through the country, desperate to find help. It turns out people are rotting and going insane after drinking wine made from grapes contaminated by a deadly pesticide. She encounters death-by-pitchfork, explosions, fires, homicidal villagers and a young blind girl who is a likely influence on the blind character, Emily, in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond.
Though overall I would classify Rollin’s work as an acquired taste, it is undeniable that he excels at atmosphere and visual power. Grapes of Death is no exception and the French countryside, shot by Claude Becognee, is at once dreamlike, peaceful, and ripe with decay, providing a wonderful juxtaposition for the moments of violence, gore, and oozing sores. This is one of his most overtly violent films and has some of the best effects of his career, including some truly stomach churning scenes. Rollin approaches zombie mythology differently than any director working at the time and it is unfair to directly label this a zombie movie. Perhaps the only film I can compare this to is Romero’s The Crazies and anyone hoping for a moody French version of Night of the Living Dead or Zombie is going to be sorely disappointed. Though Rollin made a real zombie film, Zombie Lake, this is a much more successful effort, probably because it intentionally subverts genre expectations.
There are nice performances from lovely lead actress Marie-Georges Pascal and from regular Rollin collaborator Brigitte Lahaie, who has a small part where she predictably though somewhat randomly sheds her clothes. This is one of Rollin’s least erotic films, but also one of his most effective. It really benefits from a more robust budget than Rollin typically had to work with and though it is so thematically different from his other work, this is would be a good introduction for Rollin newbies. Despite the lack of sexy vampires or overt surrealism, there are definitely some similarities to his other works. For example, Rollin’s films never follow a concrete plot and this is no exception. At times this feels more like a survival film, as it follows Elizabeth throughout the countryside, desperate to escape the oozing, zombie-like figures running rampant. Grapes of Death also packs in more suspense than most of his catalogue.
Grapes of Death is in line with Kino and Redemption’s other Blu-ray releases in their Jean Rollin series. Mastered from the original 35mm negative, the AVC encoded 1980p high definition transfer is framed at 1.66.1 and hasn’t undergone any major restoration. While the print looks fantastic compared to previous versions, there is some grain, scratches, spots, and other signs of age and wear. Though the colors pop and detail is better than ever, there is simply no way to fix the handful of out of focus shots. Fortunately any dark or night time scenes are significantly improved over the previous DVD and despite some issues, Kino did an admirable job cleaning up the print. Personally I think the original print damage adds a certain amount of charm and films from this period suffer if they are overly restored.
The uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 French language audio track, presented in DTS-HD Mono, is the only audio available, though optional English subtitles are provided. The audio track sounds decent and the levels are well balanced with clear dialogue and only a slight hiss. The age damage is minimal and in particular the synth-heavy score from Philippe Sissman sounds great.
As with all their Rollin releases, the Kino disc contains a few nice extras. Beginning with a two minute from Rollin himself discussing Grapes of Death and how it differs from his larger body of work, there is also a wonderful 49-minute interview with the director, conducted at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2007. A trailer for Grapes of Death and several other films in the Kino Rollin series are included. There is also a booklet included with the Blu-ray featuring a lengthy essay from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas about Grapes of Death and one of Rollin’s most obscure films, Night of the Hunted, which was released on Blu-ray at the same time.
The Bottom Line
Grapes of Death is by no means a perfect film and suffers from a lackluster plot and some overwrought political subtext. Though the pace is quick (for a Rollin film), the twist ending is rushed too much. There is still plenty here to please Rollin fans or anyone else interested in weird, subversive European horror. With the overwhelming amount of zombie films and television shows re-released, remade, and produced in recent years, it is always worth it to go back and visit unique, hidden gems that shuffle to the beat of their own undead drummers. Kino, as always, did an excellent job cleaning up the film and their joint release with Redemption comes recommended.