Here’s the plan: take Night of the Living Dead. Build the zombie mythos into a disaster movie formula. Have an action scene every four minutes. Throw in lots of gore to keep the audience satisfied. Sound like pitch meeting for the recently release Flight of the Living Dead? Oh, but think again. This plan was the genesis for Jean Rollin’s French zombie film, The Grapes of Death. But be not deceived. This is no schlocky fly-by-night monster film made on the cheap. In the bargain, Rollin created an important contribution to the zombie subgenre, which can stand up right alongside the works of Romero.
The film starts off in a grape field. A line of men with masks and ominous packs on their backs spray the grapes with a noxious gas. When one worker complains of feeling ill, the supervisor tells him to go back to work. Shift to a train with two girls. They appear to be the only passengers. The train moves, but inside it is lifeless (What a great metaphor for the zombie). When the sick worker boards the train, he kills the one girl and attempts to attack and kill the other, our protagonist, Elizabeth. She leaps off the train, and finds herself in the midst of a world that is collapsing.
I’ve watched three foreign zombie flicks from the 1970s back to back. The other two are 1971’s Spanish production, Tombs of the Blind Dead, and 1974’s British production Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Grapes comes along in 1978, and Rollins borrows from both. The ways he incorporates the ideas he borrows, however, establish this film as its own. The train in this film, unlike the one in Tombs, introduces the audience to the French countryside, which is a crucial character in the movie. Elizabeth has all this area into which she can escape, but escape to what? The fields of France are devoid of people; the loneliness creeped in on me while I was watching. Instead of the claustrophobia of Romero’s farmhouse, Elizabeth must face a countryside that, while it is lush and beautiful, offers no companionship, and is therefore dead. Rollin films many scenes of Elizabeth from afar, painting her on a desolate landscape. Jorge Grau’s ecological message in Manchester Morgue is blown out; all who indulge in the wine of the region become murderous zombies, who will kill their own loved ones without so much as a wince. Are these mere victims of greedy wine producers, or are they paying for the sins of alcohol in a radical, new way? Rollin is not stealing ideas from these earlier films; he’s taking these concepts and building on them to produce something that acknowledges the zombie mythos, but expands on them and creates something new for the viewer to ponder.
For those who like gore and action, there’s plenty of each. This scene does not bog itself down in its heavy concepts. Because of its structure, it constantly moves from one zombie attack to the next. Those looking for the familiar zombie siege will find it here. Those who yearn for hacked limbs and ripped guts will find those too. For a fairly artistic film, Grapes delivers on the goods. Rollin’s film presents the girl in peril, and even goes so far as to lead a blind girl to her vicious end. This endless cycle of violence only furthers Rollin’s message: in an unbalanced world, nobody is safe, nothing is sane.
The special features on the disc are a disappointment. The centerpiece is a conversation with Rollin and Grapes star and former porn star Brigitte Lahaie. It starts off well, with Rollin discussing how he began to love horror movies, but it ends up being more a chat about his other films, instead of this one. Some trailers, a slide show of stills and Rollin’s filmography and biography round out the disc. And that’s it. This movie deserved more.
The Grapes of Death came out the same year as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Given that Dawn offers no explanation for the zombie apocalypse at hand, this movie could almost act as an unofficial sequel to Romero’s Night. It’s an important companion piece to Romero’s zombie universe, and I highly recommend it.