For fans of Euro Horror, Jean Rollin needs no introduction. A long time director, he's mostly known for his vampire films, which mixed eroticism with bloody violence and Gothic atmosphere in a combination that was as poetic and oddly beautiful as it was grotesque. However, one mustn't forget his three entries into the world of zombie movies, two of which are worth checking out. The one that is about to be reviewed is his first entry in the trilogy, 1978's "The Grapes of Death."
Elisabeth (Rollin regular Marie-Georges Pascal) is in the French countryside when something is happening. It seems that a pesticide has been sprayed in the vineyards, and it's having a bad effect on the populace. One that's causing them to become violent, zombie like killers. Can she find a way out before they can get to her?
From the get go, it's a bit of a leap to really call the zombies in "The Grapes of Death" zombies. If anything, they're more reminiscent of the infected populace from George Romero's "The Crazies" (only with the ability to recognize what they are doing and whatnot) and the pseudo-zombies from Umberto Lenzi's "Nightmare City." The film does hold a social conscience not unlike Romero's work though, especially when it comes to ecological and environmental issues. The "dead" here are not the real villains. Sure, they kill, torture and maim with zeal, but the true villain in "Grapes" is mankind itself, in particular it's ignorance and arrogance towards the environment. The infected townspeople may be the main threat, but the finger of blame remains on those responsible for the catastrophic events that transpire.
Apart from that, this has many of the hallmarks of that has made Rollin's work so revered among horror fans and students of the genre. It's got the Gothic atmosphere (the use of a very creepy blind girl, the countryside is used effectively as a place were death lives) and the sadistic violence (including nasty moments such as an impalement with a pitchfork and a nasty beheading), but it lacks in the erotic beauty of his other works. That's just fine though, as it's still one of his best works, as well as one of his more straightforward films.
The tone and feel of the movie is strikingly conventional for a Rollin movie-well, as conventional as he could be at least, and it's also capably directed, with moments of sheer suspense and violence that show just how versed in the art of fear the director is. The moment in which the blind girl meets her fate is possible the best example of this. While most directors would linger on the scene without any emotional investment, Rollins cinematography and capable direction creates a scene of pure terror and potent sorrow. The viewer doesn't want anything to happen to her, and at the same time, they realize that the townsfolk are victims too.
As I said, "The Grapes of Death" is one of the director's finest works, and one of the best zombie films of the 70's. For those that wonder what French horror was like before the likes of "High Tension" and "Martyrs", this is a great place to look.