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Day of the Woman: Feminist Revenge Exploitation in I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

I Spit On Your Grave

Independently distributed by writer, director, editor, and co-producer Meir Zarchi in 1978, Day of the Woman drew little attention on its limited rural drive-in circuit run. Zarchi pulled it due to hardly making anything back on the marketing costs, and it was quickly forgotten. Then a few years later in 1981, legendary exploitation producer/distributor the late Jerry Gross gave the film a wide release. He re-titled it to The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill, and I Hate Your Guts, before settling on the now notorious I Spit on Your Grave, named after Michel Gast’s 1959 film noir, an adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1946 crime novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves). Meir Zarchi hates this title. Its infamy then went through the roof, garnering the attention of mainstream critics and their scathing narrow-minded views. “A vile bag of garbage”, proclaimed the late, often great, but sometimes imprudent, especially when it came to genre cinema, Roger Ebert. He and partner in pomposity, but at times great as well, the late Gene Siskel, led a misguided campaign against films featuring women in danger, with this as its leading example and prime target. Ironically, this became positive publicity, as it generated even more box office revenue, because the horror crowds lap up this kind of controversy.

“The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, after the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best’.” This is an excerpt from Ebert’s damning review, which is a famous critique of this infamous rape-revenge film. He goes on to say, “I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not…” While I agree that this despicable misogynist’s remarks were repugnant, this was not the reaction Zarchi was seeking from his viewers. What this is, is just what Roger Ebert rightfully goes on to say, “To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings.” Meir Zarchi was inspired by a personal experience, and it was certainly not out of hatred for women, but rather out of his love for them.

It was in the autumn of October 1974 in New York City, when Zarchi and a friend helped a young female victim of a brutal rape. When he was driving past a park with his eight-year-old daughter and friend as passengers, they saw this woman crawling out of a bush naked and badly injured. After dropping off his daughter, he and his friend decided to take the traumatized rape victim to the police rather than the hospital first. Their way of thinking was that they did not want the attacker (s) to escape and commit the crime again, but it became quickly apparent to them that they made the wrong decision. She was delayed for considerable time to be taken to hospital, because an incompetent police officer showed no understanding by making her follow procedure, like getting her to state her full name even though she could barely speak, as her jaw was broken. After much insistence from the two of them that she be taken to hospital, the officer eventually agreed. The savagery of this crime and the lack of compassion that the officer showed is what influenced Meir Zarchi to make the suitably titled Day of the Woman. He shows in graphic depictions the atrocity of a woman’s gang rape, but she does not then turn to the police, instead she deals out her own brand of vicious justice.

Going back to Ebert’s review – “When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: ‘Cut him up, sister!’ ” He goes on to say, “I would have liked to talk with the woman in the backrow, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes.”  What he is saying here is that the director focuses more on the physical violence and psychological abuse of the woman rather than her revenge. The film follows the rape-revenge book 101, entailing a simplistic three-act structure – the female protagonist is gang raped and left for dead, she rehabilitates herself, and when strong again, she takes retribution on her attackers. Over the course of the 100 minutes runtime, there are about 25 minutes of set-up, while these are still the longest rape sequences ever filmed in cinematic history, they are in fact around 25 minutes in length, then followed by roughly ten minutes of her recovery, and the final 40 minutes consists of her vengeance.

The extensive rape scenes display the abhorrence of these evil acts committed on women, as she is forcibly penetrated three times (the second anally), beaten, humiliated, and left for dead. They are certainly not executed to titillate male viewers as Roger Ebert insinuates in his review, and given the context in which the film was made, then obviously, this is not the case. I remember some years ago in a debate on an online horror movie forum, when a misinformed individual told me my defence of I Spit on Your Grave was ridiculous as it is “violent porn!” That was it, they just exclaimed their opinion, and did not back it up with an explanation as to why they think this. Rape is sexual violence, and not the pleasures of the flesh between consenting adults, just as it is in pornography between paid performers, as no matter how rough the sex gets in fantasy role-playing, these sexual acts are purely for the arousal of the voyeur. Furthermore, as well as being young and attractive, protagonist Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton, grandniece of Buster, and ex-wife of Meir Zarchi, turning in a brave performance) is portrayed as a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, and is even a ‘feminist’ writer. Zarchi wants both genders to sympathize with Jennifer, and never once wants men to identify with these rapists, as they are depicted as detestable, fuckwit, and ugly pigs – the lowest common denominators. There is no way sound-minded male viewers could think these wastes of space are cool, and find these sequences of rape raunchy. Only the worst kinds of men could, because they have what Ebert states in his critique – “… suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings.” Jennifer’s gang rape is a prolonged, excruciating experience in witnessing the violation of the female body to provoke our angry reactions, and our longing to see the despicable perpetrators get their comeuppance. Meir Zachi succeeds in making this shocking imagery completely and utterly repellent.

There is a moment early in the film when Jennifer arrives at the idyllic seclusion of her rented cottage in small-town Kent, Connecticut, to work on her writing in peace, when she runs to the lake, takes off her clothes, and goes skinny-dipping. Obviously, this can be considered as just an excuse to show us some T&A, but this is the only time we see Keaton naked other than when her character is raped. Zarchi is paying tribute to the allure of the female form, showing it in all its glory while surrounded by the tranquillity of Mother Nature at its equal beauty on a sunny day, right before Jennifer is raped and battered (like the poor young woman he had helped) in explicit, striking, and gruelling detail. Juxtaposed to this exquisiteness and serenity is some sinister foreshadowing, as we can see the rowing boat that plays a part in how Jennifer is abducted by her rapists, and when she gets in the lake, the camera zooms out to a lingering long shot. Immediately after, cutting to the next scene, we see signalling of her impending reprisal. When Jennifer is unpacking in the bedroom of her rented cottage, she discovers a handgun in one of the draws of the dresser she is putting her clothes away in.

The montage of short scenes right after Jennifer’s gang rape that show her alone as she slowly recovers is poignant cinema. For objectifying her and subjecting to animal-like treatment for their own sexual gratification, treating her as nothing more than a disposable sex toy, Jennifer punishes her misogynistic attackers without mercy. She actually becomes empowered by the cruelty she suffered by using her previous ordeal as a weapon to lure her intended victims. Through the female gaze, we see her convincingly pretend she actually enjoyed her horrific experience and wants more. Cold and calculating, she traps the feeble males by using their Achilles heel – their weakness for the pleasures of the female body. She is a black widow, and once they are in her web they cannot get out. Then the payoff comes, and we feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction as these scumbags get what they thoroughly deserve in their gruesome demises. When Jennifer points the gun she found at Johnny, the leader of the group and was the first one in, he says, “I don’t like women giving me orders.” He is then castrated, so the power of his manhood is taken away by the woman he wronged with it. He is a husband and father of two, one a daughter, and even talks about his family life leading up to his murder. Of course, Jennifer ‘acting’ as if she enjoyed being gang raped was taken literally as so by critics; another misunderstood aspect of the film.

“This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures, because it is made artlessly, it flaunts its motives: there is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering. As a critic, I have never condemned the use of violence in films if I felt the filmmakers had an artistic reason for employing it. I Spit on Your Grave does not. It is a geek show.” It is hard to disagree entirely with Ebert on this one. While the rape sequences are indeed unflinchingly effective, the revenge set-pieces are satisfying with their roughness and resolve, and those moments of recovery are stirring, this is for the most part, flat uninspired filmmaking, as Meir Zarchi just competently points the camera at the proceedings. However, while the filmmaker’s skills are limited, to make a direct correlation between this and Zarchi’s intentions is short-sighted. While Wes Craven’s granddaddy rape-revenge template, the stark and harrowing The last House on the Left (1972), was made with a more artistic vision, it does not mean Meir Zarchi just wanted to put on a “geek show.” In addition, while there is a distinct lack of genuine artistry, there are some incidental stylistic qualities. On a miniscule budget of an estimated $80,000 of Zarchi’s own money, using the primary locale of a house owned by director of photography Nouri Haviv, with the majority of the interior shots done here, the locations dictated the narrative structure of the screenplay as if it were two pages long. The drawbacks provide an un-commercial down to earth docu-film like look and feel to telling the story, as if it plays out as an observational piece on the subject matter – a slice of life drama forcing us to face the horrible reality of rape as an everyday occurrence in the real world.

The non-professional actors make for an almost neorealism-esque approach to small town life. There has been criticism of the dialogue, as the good for nothing layabout rapists sit around talking about nothing in particular, but their nonsensical chitchat perfectly captures the boredom of mundane life in the arsehole of nowhere where nothing happens. For example…

Andy: “Y’know, sometimes I look at these gorgeous-looking chicks, I mean the ones that look like real knockouts, sexy and all… and I wonder… I wonder if they gotta take a shit, too.”

Stanley: “Hey, all women shit, women are full of shit.”

Matthew:Not my mother!”

Andy: “My sister is.”

Johnny:Aw, man, cut out the shit talk!”

A real bright bunch. This dialogue is taken from a scene where they are night fishing, and they talk about abducting Jennifer for their mentally challenged friend Matthew, who delivers groceries to her, to lose his virginity, after this beautiful young woman is brought to their attention at the gas station where Johnny works, and where Andy and Stanley hang around. Stanley’s line, “Hey, all women shit, women are full of shit”, tells us of his hatred for them, and is a harbinger to his wanton of violence on Jennifer, more concerned with hurting her by way of beating her up rather than raping her. Andy also ridicule’s Jennifer’s feminist writings in the last of this trilogy of rape sequences, reading her work aloud in a mocking tone. These misogynist pricks are just asking for the fury of a woman scorned.

The absence of a non-diegetic soundtrack adds to the gritty atmosphere and hard to stomach subject matter. Meir Zarchi did actually intend to use library music, but he felt nothing was suitable. Music can only be heard in the world of the film. Andy plays a harmonica before he sodomizes Jennifer. There is a church organ being played in the scene in which Jennifer prays to God, asking for forgiveness for the vengeance she is about to unleash. There is a little Giacomo Puccini on vinyl record. There is shop background music.  

Meir Zarchi achieved what he set out to do in I Spit on Your Grave, with uncompromising brutal simplicity. The film’s undercurrent of women’s liberation mixed in with the grim and disturbing sexual violence and retribution makes for a cathartic expression of feminist wish-fulfilment; wrapped up in an exploitative nature, this metaphorical assault vehicle represents the breaking of shackles from male oppression and their sexual using of females – feminist revenge exploitation. It provoked such a strong response from Roger Ebert and his peers, with their knee jerk reactions, misunderstanding its context, that it made it a cult success, which to this day still polarizes critics and audiences alike. The Day of the Woman arrived in 1978, and is worthy of investigation and discussion.

About Dave J. Wilson

From London, England, Dave is an expat living in Thailand. He is a lifelong film fan of various genres, with a particular fondness for horror, exploitation, and other shocking cinema. He loves to write critique on this dark side of cinema. As well as being a contributor for Diabolique, you can also find him over at Dread Central, and at his blog Cinematic Shocks.

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