|Starring:||Brigitte Lahaie, Marie Georges-Pascal, Félix Marten|
|Video codec:||MPEG-4 AVC|
|Audio:||French: LPCM 2.0|
Simultaneously with 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, Grapes diverts from his series of surreal vampire erotica movies for a moody, atmospheric take on the zombie subgenre.
Like many of Rollin’s films, Grapes of Death follows the narrative loosely. A young girl, Elizabeth, is traveling by train with her friend through the French countryside, but suddenly, the pair are attacked by a strange, diseased figure. Her friend is killed and she flees through the country, desperate to find help. It is revealed that people are physically rotting and going insane after drinking wine made from grapes contaminated by a deadly pesticide. Through her encounters, she witnesses 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 as a whole, 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 to this fact, and the French countryside, shot by Claude Becognee, is at once dreamlike, peaceful and ripe with decay, providing a wonderful juxtaposition to the moments of violence, gore, and oozing sores. This is one of Rollins’ most overtly violent films and has some of the best effects of his career, including some truly stomach churning scenes that I dare not spoil. Rollin approaches zombie mythology differently than any director working in the genre at the time, and it is possibly 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 has made a real zombie film, that being Zombie Lake, Grapes of Death is a much more successful effort because it intentionally subverts genre expectations.
The film sports nice performances from lovely lead actress Marie-Georges Pascal and regular Rollin collaborator Brigitte Lahaie, who has a small part where she predictably though randomly sheds her clothes. This is one of Rollin’s least erotic films, but one of his most cinematically effective. Grapes of Death really benefits from a more robust budget than Rollin typically had, and though it is so thematically different from his other work, it would be a good introduction for those uninitiated with Rollin. Despite the lack of sexy vampires or brash surrealism, there are definitely apparent similarities to his other works. For example, Rollin’s films never follow a substantial, anchored plot and this one is no exception. At times, this feels more like a survival film, as it follows Elizabeth throughout the countryside, desperate to escape the disgusting zombie-like figures wreaking havoc. Furthermore, it should be noted that Grapes of Death also packs in more suspense than most of Rollins’ 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 1080p 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 minor 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 from “DNR-glimmer” 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 video with 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. Trailers 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 most from a lackluster plot and overwrought political subtext. Though the pace is quick (especially for a Rollin film), the twist ending is rushed and incoherent. However, there is still plenty in this package 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.
~ By Samm Deighan