Grapes of Death
“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis
From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.
I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.
Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.
But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.
But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.
For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.
And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.
Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.
Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.
In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.
Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973’s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.
Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.
Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.
Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.
Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980’s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.
Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.
It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.