Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Grapes of Death (1978)

Leave it to a Frenchman to incorporate "grapes" into the title of a horror film. Or for that matter, "raisins".

While discussing the auteurs of horror, French writer/director Jean Rollin is usually disregarded as one of the lesser names, dangerously close to being considered the Andy Milligan of Goth.

His oeuvre is primarily populated by winsome vampires barely out of their adolescence, and usually mostly out of their clothes. With a background in more adult entertainment, his genre films however display a visual flair that is immediately recognizable, a distinct eye for the baroque that transcends his modest budgets. Although languidly paced, with a minimal amount of dialogue and an emphasis on the erotic, the films are usually grounded by an unexpected air of the melancholy. And usually with a Grand Guignol flare for gory mayhem.

If his name is known at all to the casual horror fan, it is in association with Rob Zombie’s “The Living Dead Girl”, a hillbilly-industrial track ostensibly based on the English retitling of Rollin’s 1982 film, LA MORT VIVANTE. While not his first entry into zombie territory, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL hews closer to his vampire mythos than his earlier effort, 1978’s THE GRAPES OF DEATH (aka: LES RAISINS DE LE MORT, aka: PESTICIDE).

It’s not exactly a zombie flick, but that is the closest genre you could categorize LES RAISINS DE LE MORT. If there would be an antecedent, it would be George Romero’s THE CRAZIES.

The film follows the trials of Elizabeth, a young woman traveling by rail across the French countryside. She’s en route to meet with her fiancĂ©, who runs a winery. Before she reaches her destination however, she encounters a homicidal man who has just murdered her traveling companion, and whose face disintegrates before her horrified eyes as he chases her off the train.

Lost in the rural expanse, the woman encounters various peasants who seem to have become trapped between life and death, driven mad by the pain of decaying alive, and more than eager to throttle her and visit various abuses upon her body (implied by the fact that any uninfected individual she comes across in her adventure inevitably takes the proverbial bullet for her - by pitchfork, hatchet, or whatever lethal tool the living 'dead' have at hand at the moment).

Finally, it is revealed that her fiancé has been pimping out wine tainted by pesticides, which has been consumed en masse earlier at a festival by the unfortunate villagers (talk about becoming dead drunk).

This is easily one of Rollin's most accessible films, but may not be to the tastes of anyone weaned on Empty-Vee styled horror flicks. But to those with a discriminating palate and eyes welcoming to subtitles, this is definitely recommended neo-zombie fare -- leisurely paced, atmospheric, and with liberal dollops of gore and mayhem to boot, this is late 70's horror at its best.

The title was near impossible to locate up until a few years ago (aside from crappy greymarket dupes), at which point Synapse Films released a lovingly mastered DVD, in a transfer digitally enhanced for widescreen television. With a commendable attention to detail, this disc is a keeper.

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