My first viewing of Jean Rollin's 1978 film The Grapes Of Death did not go well. I thought it was a dismal film, an obvious commercial venture, lacking the strange, surreal power of Rollin's earlier work. Still I persevered and on subsequent viewings my opinion began to soften, and while the film is no masterpiece like The Nude Vampire, it remains a well-crafted, atmospheric chiller. In the film a young woman travelling by train through a remote part of the French countryside stumbles upon a village where a pesticide has poisoned the wine and turned the residents into depraved murderers with a taste for carnage...
The Grapes of Death's theme of mankind's interference with nature and suffering the consequences is hardly ground-breaking stuff, Jorge Grau mined similar territory, (and had a lot more to say about it) with his 1974 film The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue. But The Grapes of Death is one of Rollin's most accomplished films, working with a strong narrative - aside from one bit of daft plotting to do with Brigitte Lahaie's character who seems to have a supernatural immunity to the infection. Rollin's great skill as a visual director is well to the fore here and the film is often striking looking, as well as eerie - it's certainly one of the bleakest looking rural horror films, as the heroine moves through rugged, boulder strewn landscapes, dilapidated farm houses and ravished grape plantations.
The film does have its fair share of problems - there's the uneven pace, some tacky plague make-up which manages to look both disgusting and phony, and a general air of uncertainty which hangs over the film - Rollin seems to have taken inspiration from George Romero, but doesn't quite know if he's riffing on the zombies of Night of the Living Dead or the homicidal maniacs of The Crazies. Either way, Rollin gets the job done and provides some gory thrills along the way - a pitchfork killing and a nasty decapitation. Interestingly the film has some neat parallels with Cabin Fever, however unlikely it may be that Eli Roth was inspired to write his debut feature after seeing Rollin's film.
Synapse's DVD presents The Grapes of Death in fine form, with a nice sharp, clean 1.66 transfer. Audio is fine and experiencing the film in its original French language does benefit the film more so than a dub track. English subs are optional. As well as the theatrical trailer the disc comes with interviews with Rollin and his muse Brigitte Lahaie. If you are a new comer to the idiosyncratic Cinema of Jean Rollin The Grapes of Death makes for a fine starting point.