Directed by Jean Rollin in 1978, The Grapes Of Death is an interesting mix of Night Of The Living Dead and I Drink Your Blood, a horror movie with an environmental twist and a uniquely French tone. The picture begins with an opening scene in which a few men in rural France are dealing with some pesticides in use all around the grape fields of this particular area, known for its wineries.
From here we cut to a train where two pretty young women are travelling - Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and her friend (Evelyne Thomas). When Elizabeth's friend leaves their car for a minute, a strange man comes in and sits in the seat opposite. Here we see something happen to him; his face is changing and starting to show signs of decomposition, almost like he's starting to rot. Understandably freaked out by this, Elisabeth runs from the car and he gives chase. As she flees the train, she sees that her friend has been murdered. She jumps off and runs through the countryside until she comes across a farm house. Here she meets a young woman who is upset that her father has just murdered her mother. She wants to flee and so she and Elisabeth decide to take the farmer's car and head somewhere safe - until he shows up, pitchfork in hand. He kills his own daughter and then, seemingly quite aware of what's happened to him, he more or less forces Elisabeth to run him over with his car.
Eventually Elisabeth is back on foot again. She meets a blind woman who somehow leads her to a small village where they see more contaminated people milling about committing various atrocities. They take solace in a house populated by a woman who doesn't seem to be contaminated (Brigitte Lahiae) but as it turns out, this is not the case. Eventually two men find Elisabeth and they decide to travel together in hopes that they'll find somewhere safe to hide away until help arrives, but everyone around them seems to be rotting and insane...
Far more conventional than any of Rollin's other pictures, The Grapes Of Death is quite well made. It takes an interesting premise (contamination by way of pesticide) and exploits it well, offering up some impressive gore scenes, a few strong murder set pieces and plenty of oozing, gooey 'zombie' make up along the way for good measure. While the film strays from the sexualized nature of many of his other pictures, we're still treated to the obligatory nude scene from the lovely Ms. Lahiae, who Rollin would later use in Fascination, Night Of The Hunted and finally Fiancé Of Dracula. Not afraid to use an adult actress in a 'mainstream' picture, Rollin gets a good performance out of Lahiae here but her role is definitely more of a smaller supporting on than the headlining she'd do in the later three pictures. Marie-Georges Pascal also does well here, playing her role with some convincingly confused character traits that help us to feel for her as she goes through all of this. Like a lot of Rollin's leading ladies, she has an interesting sort of naivety and innocence to her that makes her a bit endearing, but is also quite an attractive woman.
What really helps make this one as effective as it is, however, are the locations that Rollin chose for the film. Shot in an area populated with abandoned and decaying buildings, the scenic French countryside transforms from idyllic to ominous very convincingly. The horror of the events in the movie contrasts in interesting ways with the serene landscapes, while an odd but effective electronic score gives added weight to the proceedings. Fast paced and really well made, this may be Rollin at his most commercial but that's not a bad thing. The Grapes Of Death is smart, engrossing and plenty entertaining.
The Grapes Of Death looks good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.66.1 widescreen and mastered from the original 35mm negative. As it has been with most of the Kino pickups from Redemption, it doesn't appear that the movie has undergone any seriously intensive restoration but the elements used here were obviously in pretty nice shape to begin with so outside of some minor specks and a couple of small scratches, there's nothing to be concerned about. Detail is solid as is texture and color reproduction looks nice and natural and is noticeably improved over the DVD release from a few years back. Shadow detail is also quite improved, making the darker scenes quite a bit better looking overall. There are no issues with compression artifacts evident nor are there any obvious examples of either edge enhancement or noise reduction. All in all, this is a nice film-like transfer that should make the film's fan base pretty happy.
The only audio option on the disc is an DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track in the film's original French language, no alternate language are supplied though optional English subtitles are provided. This isn't a particularly exciting track but for an older Mono mix, it leaves little room for complaint. The levels are nicely balanced, the dialogue is easy enough to understand and distortion (you'll hear it in the opening theme song) or hiss does make it into the mix is minimal. The score sounds good as well, it's got some nice punch behind it when the movie asks for it.
The main extra on the disc is a lengthy forty-nine minute long video interview with Jean Rollin, Patrick Lambert and Frederick Durand conducted in 2007. Although the interview is more of a career spanning retrospective piece rather than a Grapes Of Death specific discussion, this is still something that the late director's fans will certainly appreciate. Here Rollin, in quite a good mood, talks about what got him into filmmaking, the influence of French pop culture and literature, directors that impressed him, what he tries to go for with his different filmmaking tactics and more.
Aside from that we get a quick two minute optional introduction to the film from Rollin, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Rollin titles available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino/Redemption, static menus and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is a full color booklet of liner notes from Tim Lucas that discuss Grapes Of Death and Night Of The Hunted in quite a bit of detail, putting them in a welcome historical and cultural context and offering up some interesting stories about their origins and influence.
Probably the closest thing to a 'pure' horror film that Jean Rollin ever made, The Grapes Of Death holds up well. While its modest budget is apparent the movie succeeds as a tense, creative and well-made horror picture with some memorable set pieces and a lot of really effective imagery. The Blu-ray release from Kino/Redemption looks and sounds quite good and includes an interesting retrospective interview with the late director and a few other supplements too. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.