Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Grapes of Death (1978)

It's October, and I'm steeped in my tradition of All Horror Movies All the Time. Starting this year's horror glut with a little Jean Rollin.

French zombies! Well, sort of. The creatures in this film are not, strictly speaking, zombies. They’re infected (much like the people in The Crazies, I guess), but many of them seem to still have their minds, though they become homicidal after a while. The disease is from a poisoned wine supply, so it doesn’t spread person to person, as in typical zombie films. These “zombies” don’t eat people (or brains, or whatever); they just kill. And they can apparently be killed just like a normal person (bullet to the head effective, but not required).

Zombie films also tend to have some sort of political or social message, but while this movie tries very briefly to dip into political matters, it feels very out of place.

The story is pretty simple. A vineyard starts using a new pesticide that infects the workers and poisons the wine (which infects everyone who drinks it). A woman, Elizabeth, is traveling by train to visit her fiancé, who runs the vineyard, and one of the infected gets on the train and kills her friend, forcing Elizabeth to flee into the countryside. Everywhere she tries to take refuge is ZombieTown. 

The movie is very slow and atmospheric (very French, in other words), but that shouldn’t suggest that it’s dull. It’s really quite beautifully shot, and the rustic locations make it seem like a story from another time (well, I guess the 1970s are “another time” at this point, but I mean from centuries ago). I love seeing how different filmmakers play with the tropes, and there are some really effective frights in this. One of the most genuinely scary sequences involves Elizabeth encountering a young blind woman. She returns the girl to her village, but everyone seems to be dead or infected and Elizabeth is trying not to alarm her, but the girl doesn’t understand what’s going on and is panicking. There’s also an extended bit with a severed head that’s particularly gruesome. (Special effects in this film are really well done for being made on the cheap.)

The director, Jean Rollin, is known for his erotic horror movies (notably his lesbian vampire movies, such as Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Shiver of the Vampires, etc.), and all of his films dwell lovingly on the (usually nude or partially nude) female form. This movie is the least leering (though it does still have *some* leering) and probably the most truly scary of his films.