Everybody loves to pretend they know what wine is supposed to taste like. “Woody” and “nutty” are not things I’d like to hear when describing a beverage, but who am I to judge? Wine has always been a big thing in Europe, however, and specifically France. They love the stuff; drink it like it’s water. It’d sure be a shame if something infected the wine and made people sick, wouldn’t it? Maybe even turn them into pus-spewing, murderous zombies? Sound far-fetched? Well, this is exactly what happens in Jean Rollin’s 1978 slow-paced gorefest: Les Raisins de la Mort, or to us ‘mericans, The Grapes of Death.
Aside from making several straight-up pornographic films, Rollin was best known for making erotic horror movies, many involving lesbian vampires. This is one of the few he made which isn’t overtly sexual, though there are a fair amount of bare breasts. The main thing that can be said about this film is that it’s very, very French. There are long stretches of silence where the main character merely walks and the majority of scenes with dialogue consist of short, declarative statements. These are punctuated by scenes of incredibly graphic, sustained violence and gore that are among the most horrific I’ve ever seen, which are weirdly undercut by the sporadic, out-of-place harpsichord music that seems to disappear in the strangest of places.
The story itself is a bit thin: the Roublès winemaking vineyard has started using a new pesticide developed by the owner. The workers, later revealed to be immigrants, who spray the pesticide begin to get sick. Elsewhere, a young woman named Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) rides a train bound for Roublès to live with her fiancé, the owner of the vineyard. One of the sick workers gets on the train, kills Elizabeth’s friend, and chases Elizabeth off the train, his face oozing all the while. I think you’ll agree, that’s not what you want in public transportation. Turns out the pesticide her fiancé invented has a nasty side effect: it gets into the wine and makes the drinker rot from the inside out, manifesting in homicidal behavior and an unsightly skin condition. Oh, and there was a “New Wine” festival the previous weekend. This can’t be good. From there we have a string of scenes with Elizabeth running across various infected people who talk to her before trying to kill her.
I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the screenplay to this movie was 18 pages long. There’s so little dialogue for such a long time that when two characters enter the movie in the last half hour and have actual conversations, it’s supremely off-putting. Most of the talking scenes play like any French film you’ve seen, and there’s even a scene toward the end where Elizabeth says “Je t’aime” in the middle of protracted silence. This doesn’t, however, stop her from meeting increasingly weird people along the way. She meets a man and his daughter who seem fine at first, but turn out not to be; she meets a stumbling blind woman who got lost while looking for her guardian; she meets a creepy blonde woman who, though she has no outward signs of infection, might be the most insane of the bunch; and eventually she meets two beer-drinking hunters who are safe because they don’t like wine.
What the film lacks in script, it makes up for in atmosphere. The film takes place in the French countryside, and the stone houses in the hilly village coupled with the dreary weather creates a very unsettling and bleak mood befitting a small-time apocalypse such as this. Rollin’s camera lingers on shots perhaps longer than he should, and sometimes the continuity between shots is wildly incorrect. The quality of the film looks great, but it’s clear it’s being made on the cheap. However, this cheapness gives the movie a strange and unsettling feel, which again is certainly not a detriment for something like this.
Earlier, I alluded to the shocking nature of the gore scenes. All of the “zombies” have gushing grotesqueries that are representations of them rotting from the inside out. It’s not as elaborate as a Tom Savini effect in the George A. Romero movies, but it works. The violence, on the other hand, is right up there with ol’ Tommy, maybe even better (I know that’s blasphemous). This film came out the same year as Romero’s masterwork, Dawn of the Dead, and while that is an infinitely better film with heaps and heaps of gore, this film is very effective with its few gore scenes. In an early scene, an infected man kills his less-infected daughter by tearing open her shirt (remember who the director is) and jamming a pitchfork into her abdomen. We then get a very long shot of the pitchfork through her as she wriggles around before dying. The effect is masterful and I was unable to tell for a bit if the girl’s abdomen was fake (no) or if it was a fake pitchfork (yes).
Perhaps the most shocking of these effects comes about midway through the film. Elizabeth and Lucie, the blind girl, have returned to her village. Elizabeth sees disfigured and butchered bodies everywhere, but doesn’t wish to tell Lucie, who is still looking for her guardian, Lucas. She finds him while Elizabeth is investigating and the infected man begins weeping, knowing that he can no longer control himself. When Elizabeth returns, we see the door to a cabin swing open and Lucie’s dead, topless (again, the director) body is nailed to it. From within, Lucas appears with a machete and proceeds to hack Lucie’s head from her shoulders while shriek-laughing as Elizabeth screams. He then holds up her head and carries it the entire rest of the time he’s onscreen. It’s maybe 30 of the most horrific seconds you’ll ever find in a very slow movie.
While not any great work of horror, the salacious Jean Rollin’s least salacious film is one to be seen. Plus, if we’re lucky, it’ll get remade to take place in Napa Valley so snooty rich people will think twice about that oaky bottle of red.