French director Jean Rollin is an acquired taste even for Euro-cult enthusiasts. His projects are often disjointed and ill-conceived affairs improvised with no real shooting script, assuring them dubious distinction. However, discriminating film buffs such as yours truly will gladly tumble through the veritable briar patch to reach the occasional Elysian field. Those moments, whether intended or accidental, are unusually sublime and transgressive, often elevating Rollin's films far above their shallow trappings.
In Grapes Of Death (aka Raisins de la Mort), Jean Rollin leaves behind his usual inclination for pale, languid, scantily clad bloodsuckers to try his steady hand at a zombie picture. The result is easily one of his most accessible works and what some consider to be the first French gore film. It offers exceptional atmosphere, genuine suspense, glops of goo and even a logical script (a rarity in Rollin's realm), for those of you into that sort of thing.
In the opening, an experimental pesticide is seen being sprayed on some crops and one worker becomes violently ill due to inhalation. He boards a train and ends up sharing a coach with a young woman named Elizabeth, on her way to the south of France to reunite with her lover. Before she arrives at her destination however, the sickly man changes into a pus-oozing maniac and attempts to violently assault her. She escapes off the train car into the remote countryside, only to find the strange affliction has infested the entire region, making its victims apparently ravenous for human flesh.
Along her journey she encounters people in different states of the sickness, leading the distressed damsel to conceivable peril at nearly every turn. First stumbling upon a family just giving over to the change and barely making it out alive; then crossing paths with a disoriented blind woman exiled from her village (an early precursor to The Beyond's striking 'Emily' character, if you ask me) whom Elizabeth agrees to help back home. Unfortunately, they get a shocking 'heads up' as to the dire extent of the outbreak upon their arrival. Quite literally, in fact.
Her luck finally changes when she meets two beer-guzzling laborers (beer being key) who eventually determine that the outbreak can likely be traced to a recent grape harvest. Now knowing the cause, but not the cure, Elizabeth embarks on the final leg of her detour of dread. Ultimately, what she finds will never be blunted by a fine bottle of Chianti, let me tell you.
If one aspect of a Jean Rollin film can always be appreciated, it’s his impressive camerawork. Unusually beautiful and moody locations, careful tracking shots and hyper surreal sequences tend to be his norm. One of Grapes Of Death's true strengths is its pastoral setting; the ruined French countryside and its strange rock formations lend strongly to the story's sense of alienism and decay. (Much like Jorge Grau’s seminal Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which shares certain sensibilities.)
Rollin's zombies are definitely an unusual breed from the era. They are capable of conscious thought even in their madness, making their plight even more tragic than George Romero's own relatable revenants. Garish colors are used for the boils, lesions and various skin abnormalities that decorate the diseased denizens giving them a most bizarre appearance. Several impressive set pieces are used to great effect and the blood runs almost as freely as…well, wine. (shut up) The strong environmental subtext running through the film is as relevant as ever, too, making it all one fantastic bit of alleGORY.
At times Grapes Of Death does meander as slowly as a dead man walking, but the curious stops along the way make the trip all the more hypnotic. Minimal dialogue adds to this composition of decomposition, adding to the already dreamlike quality. And for you miscreants in the audience, 70's porn star and Rollin-muse Brigitte Lahaie is given yet another opportunity to expose her comely assets in a coincidental role that is as mysteriously effective as it is nonsensical.
If you are new to the Jean Rollin aesthetic then this is a fine place to start, especially considering its straight forward narrative. Awash in the weird (this is still a Rollin film after all), at times grotesque and visually impressive, it gives the zombie fan a distinct ‘raisin’ to cheer. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself again.) Drink it in.