The Grapes of Death (1978)
By: Steve Smith  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Synapse (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). French 1.0. English Subtitles. 90 minutes
The Movie
Director: Jean Rollin
Starring: Marie-Georges Pascal, Brigitte Lahaie, Serge Marquand, Felix Marten, Patricia Cartier
Country: France
AKA: Les Raisins de la Mort, Pesticide, The Raisins Of Death
Say the words 'Jean Rollin' and 'zombie' in the same sentence, and most genre fans will shake their heads. You see, after a decent career making sexually charged vampire flicks, Rollin is hated the world over for bringing to life Zombie Lake (green painted faces. scary!). However Synapse have now attempted to redeem the French auteur by releasing his rarely seen Grapes Of Death.

The story begins with two female friends, Elizabeth and Brigitte, travelling to a remote French village by train. The arrival of a man who seems to literally decompose in front of their eyes causes Elizabeth to panic and flee the enclosed space of her train compartment. She soon discovers the body of her friend, prompting her to flee the train and scramble her way through the desolate French countryside. But as she does so, in the vain attempt to reach her fiancé, she discovers that madness is gripping the otherwise peaceful villages. Residents are embarking on a psychopathic, murderous rampage, and all display signs of bodily decay. With the help of a young blind girl she discovers amongst the hills, Elizabeth runs from village to village, only to discover that the sickness is everywhere. Will she and her new companion end their lives at the hands of these 'zombies'? And will they ever discover the cause of this plague? Maybe it has something to do with a certain liquid that is unanimous with French culture.

What sets this film apart from other zombie movies, is the zombies themselves. They are not the mute, flesh munching beings of Romero's and Fulci's offerings. Rollin's zombies are real human beings who display real human emotions. Take for example one of the most powerful scenes in the movie - a young girl is beheaded by her father figure with an axe. Yet as he is doing so, he's crying and telling her he loves her. They feel remorse for their actions, but are driven by the madness inside of them to do so. Yes, they display the rotting appearance that we're used to, along with the slow walk with the arms outstretched pose, but couple this with the added human emotion and you get an immensely refreshing alternative to the zombie genre.

Thumbs up has to go to the cinematography as well. The beautiful countryside is shown in gorgeous panoramic shots, yet the villages themselves are quite claustrophobic in their appearance, giving the viewer a sense of the entrapment that the characters on screen are obviously experiencing. And of course, no Rollin film would be complete without some sexual imagery. Thankfully, in this film's case, this is kept to an absolute minimum. Rollin (and hard core porn) regular Brigitte Lahaie makes an appearance, as do her two very fine assets! But even then so, her nudity is used to express the storyline rather than add an extra something for the male viewers. And aside from Lahaie, the other actors do a fine job in their given roles.

Overall, I believe this to be one of Rollin's greatest efforts, alongside The Living Dead Girl. Many viewers may be put off by it's slow moving nature, but I feel that this only adds to the sense of dread within the film itself. It's a zombie movie that's completely in a class of it's own. It has more in common with Romero's The Crazies than his infamous 'Dead' series. Snatch this film up as soon as you can - you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results!
Synapse have really gone to town with this disc, and have mastered it directly from the original 35mm camera negative. The image is presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 ratio with plenty of detail, but with some grain present. There's no vibrancy to the picture though, but this was Rollin's intention. He paints a bleak picture of the French countryside, which is perfectly represented here. There was no trace of digital artefacts on my set-up.
Sound is mono and is perfectly clear, with speech being very clear in the mix. The soundtrack itself is the original French language track (I don't believe it was ever dubbed into English - correct me if I'm wrong), and the removable English subtitles are easy to read throughout.
Extra Features
Contained on the disc are the usual biographies and filmography, trailer and photo slide shows, but what is of most interest is a rather extensive video interview with Rollin and Lahaie. Both speak quite openly about their experiences on Grapes Of Death, and other films the two have made together. They do seem to waffle on a bit though, but there are some interesting facts about Rollin's films spoken about here, so if you're a fan of the man, or at least you want to discover more about him and his work, then stick with it.
The Verdict
An essential purchase for horror fans, and especially those looking for something a little bit different. It may not be for some tastes though, as is it is rather slow in places, and some may feel the change from zombie conventions a little hard to swallow. Not only have Synapse taken the effort to release this little seen gem, but they've also given it the love and attention is so richly deserves.
Movie Score
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