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Reviews

The Grapes of Death

The Grapes of Death

Les Raisins de la Mort

Jean Rollin

France, 1978

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 25 October 2004

Source Synapse Films DVD

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Chased from her train by a bloodthirsty madman sporting a face of decaying flesh, young Élisabeth flees into the desolate French countryside. Unbeknownst to our heroine, however, an experimental pesticide has tainted the region’s grape harvest, and all imbibers of the local vintage have been viciously mutated into deranged killers.

Although this gory favorite from director Jean Rollin is invariably categorized as a zombie film, the antagonists in The Grapes of Death are not the slow-moving, brain-munching, dehumanized corpses that inevitably come to mind when we think of the word zombie.

For starters, Rollin’s nemeses aren’t the dead come back to life. They are living people driven mad by contaminated wine. And though they are given to bouts of uncontrollable rage, more than likely resulting in murder, they also have spells of regret in which they are unquestionably aware of and sorry for their actions. (Witness a bereaved father kissing the dead lips of his beloved daughter, soon after chopping off her head.)

Rollin’s zombies, then, if we may call such creatures zombies, present his heroine with a unique challenge: Whereas run-of-the-mill zombie flicks feature protagonists oppressed by a clearly hostile adversary, in The Grapes of Death, Élisabeth can never be sure if the unstable inhabitants she meets will help her or try to kill her.

Rollin enhances this disconcerting atmosphere of uncertain fear by setting his story in an eerily isolated and lifeless landscape, casting Élisabeth adrift in a surreal and nightmarish world of crumbling houses, empty fields, and bleak vistas in which any hope of deliverance seems unreachable. The result of all this is a beautiful, engaging, and horrific film, and one of the few truly memorable French contributions to the world of zombie horror.

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