Conventional wisdom has it that The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins de la mort) is Jean Rollin's most "accessible" film. With its tale of a rural village in France suffering a bio-zombie outbreak thanks to some experimental insecticide sprayed on the local winery's grape harvest, the 1978 film follows a much more traditional, easily digestible narrative structure than much of Rollin's Expressionist lesbian vampire oeuvre (see previous MMMMMovie Reviews Shiver of the Vampires, Requiem for a Vampire), and is many kilometers away from his more surrealist modern efforts (e.g. Fiancee of Dracula, reviewed by the inestimable Tenebrous Kate here). More straightforward and less gorgeously brooding than the director's other zombie opus, Vicar-Top-Five mainstay The Living Dead Girl, this movie finds the director largely stepping back from his trademark style and trying his hand at a Romero-style horror ride.
Except, not really.
Under the credits we see a group of field workers, cloth masks over their faces, spraying a vineyard with insecticide. Upon returning to base, a worker named Kowalski complains of fever, difficulty breathing, and a pain in his neck. The winery boss Michael tells the slacker to get a drink and get back to work, noting offhandedly that they're expecting new masks tomorrow that will be "completely airtight." That's pretty much all we get as explanation for the upcoming plague of terror, but like the toxic waste barrels in the crypt in Living Dead Girl, it will have to suffice, since this trip out Rollin's not wasting any time!
Next we find ourselves on a train barreling through rural France, where Michael's fiancee Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and a pretty blonde traveling companion talk excitedly about their future plans. Elizabeth is going to the vineyard in the rural village of Roublais, while her friend is continuing on to Spain. Both find it unusual and a little unsettling that apart from them the train seems entirely deserted. Nearing Elizabeth's destination, they take turns freshening up in the train's washroom, where Elizabeth leaves her friend to go back to their car and brush her luxurious locks in anticipation.
At the next stop a man boards the train, whom we recognize as the stricken Kowalski, probably on his morning commute to work. His eyes glassy, he stumbles past compartment after empty compartment, finally lumbering into Elizabeth's and flopping down on the opposite bench. We quickly realize something's not right with the fruitpicker, as a large spot on the side of his neck and face begins seeping blood! Elizabeth watches in terror as the spot pulses and grows bigger, in a bit of body horror and grody effluvia that's still effective. In obvious pain but still dazed, Kowalski attacks Elizabeth, causing her to escape the compartment in search of her friend. Of course the zombified Frenchman has already murdered the blonde in the W.C., so Elizabeth pulls the emergency stop cord and flees train, running down the tracks from her would-be killer. Kowalski gives half-hearted chase, but then sits on the tracks and buries his face in his hands.
Heading through a tunnel and then over a fog-shrouded railway bridge (an absolutely gorgeous shot from cinematographer Claude Bécognée), Elizabeth finds herself in a strange, mountainous region which also seems weirdly deserted. Eventually she finds an abandoned-looking house, and when her knocks at the door go unanswered she forces her way in, surprising the place's occupants, an old man and his beautiful young daughter. As she explains her situation and begs them to call the police, the country folk only stare at her blankly. She notices an ugly sore on the old man's hand, which he quickly hides, then tells her the phone and car are both inoperative and she'll have to stay the night. The daughter sends her upstairs to a room, where Elizabeth discovers the corpse of the girl's mother, her throat slit! The girl quiets her screams and tells her the old man has gone crazy, having killed the mother in a fit of rage. They resolve to escape together.
Things don't go well on that score, as the old man thwarts their attempt, ripping his daughter's clothes off before skewering her with a pitchfork in a gory, well-done FX scene (you can see the girl's rib cage going up and down around the tines as she gasps her last--still not sure how they managed that). Grabbing the keys to the car and running for her life, Elizabeth is blocked at the gate by the murderous dad, now also covered with pulsing, suppurating sores, who begs her to run him down before he kills again. She obliges, driving through the craggy landscape that is absolutley covered with ruins. In these ruins she runs into another pus-laden victim of the plague, who begs her for help and bangs his head on her car window, leaving a sticky splotch of gunk on the glass.
"the fighting started," and has now become lost. Accompanying her back to the village, Elizabeth finds a scene of apocalyptical carnage, houses burned out and bodies littering the ground. The blind girl breaks away from Elizabeth to find her brother, who like the other plague victims seems confused and frightened, but unable to control his violent tendencies, even against his beloved sister. Taking the Romero Barbara-gets-eaten-by-her-brother trope one step further, Rollin has the blind girl's brother engage in a monstrous act of sacrilege and mutilation, made all the more chilling by the perpetrator's emotion-wracked wails as he carries it out. (Later he goes even one step further, with the brother's good-bye kiss to his sister's disembodied head.)
As the village's inhabitants come out of the stonework in a full-scale zombie attack, Elizabeth finds shelter with a seemingly unaffected townswoman, gorgeous Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie, who has holed up in the mayor's house. While her often-nude body is unmarked by the plague, her strange mannerisms and mysterious smile put Elizabeth (and the viewer) on edge. Soon the two flee and are rescued by a pair of hunters from the next town who've come to put down the zombie menace, and Brigette reveals more flesh and the true intentions behind her seeming kindness.
The two men and Elizabeth make their way to the winery at Roublais, with young hunter Paul (Félix Marten) and older, crotchety cuss Lucien (Serge Marquand) trading barbs on what it means to be patriotic, with reminiscenes of fighting the fascists in WWII. When they get to the winery and find it seemingly deserted, they manage to get through to Paris and learn that a helicopter is on the way. The men drink and smoke to celebrate, but Elizabeth goes in search of her fiancee, and of course finds him for a heartrending and somewhat shocking denoument.
I always feel like I should get myself an arts degree before I try to talk about one of Jean Rollin's movies. And this is not in any way a dis--it's merely to say that the director's films pack such a visual and emotional punch for me, seem so layered in illogical but nonetheless powerful imagery and narrative, that I don't feel equipped to talk about them in a way that would do justice to the feelings they inspire. I know many modern viewers are turned off by Rollin's usual lack of narrative continuity, his obsession with certain images, and the "dream like" ideal that some read as artistic pretension; but for me the director hits much more often than he misses--though I can't always explain why, particularly to those coming to his work for the first time.
That won't stop me trying, though.
The Grapes of Death is definitely the most straightforward of Rollin's films I've seen in a narrative sense. It follows the standard zombie apocalypse storyline of "hero/heroine is separated from loved ones by zombies, then goes through hell to get back to them," and never strays too far from that plot. It's also probably the goriest Rollin flick I've seen: the body horror of the zombified/Crazies-ed townspeople is gross and effective, as is the emotional turmoil they display while fighting their murderous urges. The aftermath of the zombies' attacks are also very good--the Grand Guignol is evoked a couple of times, with one corpse showing a popped-out eyeball dangling by its optic nerve, and the fate of the blind girl both pre- and post-decapitation is a little hard to take, even for this seasoned viewer. Of course the fake head could have been better, and once or twice I'm pretty sure I saw a "corpse" breathe, but these are minor quibbles overall.
Despite its surface straightforwardness, there were other touches that seemed to be striving to evoke the dream-like expressionism of Rollin's earlier, more personal works. It's significant to me that the train on which Elizabeth arrives is almost deserted, as if she's on some kind of lonely dream journey. The shot of her crossing the railway bridge in the fog, I thought, could signify her "crossing over" into an otherworldly realm--a world of ruins, abandoned chateaus, burned out shacks, a world where pale crags dot the landscape like tombstones--it's clearly a Realm of Death.
I found the acting styles more realistic here than in some of Rollin's earlier works too--at least among a few of the characters, and in a way that I think is significant. While the inhabitants of the Realm of Death have the same hypnotized, glaze-eyed stares of many of Rollin's other characters, the "living" here (Paul, Lucien, pre-infection Michael) seem natural and believable. In fact, it's this subtle difference that makes Brigitte Lahaie's performance much more memorable--though she looks like one of the "living," her mannerisms mark her as a denizen of the dream world.
Grapes of Death is therefore a great place to start for anyone wanting to get into Rollin's work but made wary by his reputation for surrealism and dream logic. It has notes of those elements, but also a linear story and goopy gore that any horror fan should find comforting in its familiarity. It also has some of the gorgeous compositions, poetic imagery, and stylistic flourishes that could give a novice a grounding in what to expect from the director's more "out there" works--a sort of fog-shrouded bridge from our world into his. For that reason--and because I fucking love Rollin--I give Grapes of Death 3+ Thumbs. See it!
Some more great images from Grapes of Death (1978):