Jean Rollin is notorious for the 1981 film “Zombie Lake”, with its cheap production values, Nazi zombies, rampant nudity, and sheer laziness of craft (there are power cords and crewmen in some shots). It’s unfortunate that this is often the viewer’s first impression of Rollin. Once he saw the script and realized what he’d gotten himself into, he sped through production and used a fake name. Arguably not the most professional approach, but also not indicative of his usual output.
Those who delve further into his oeuvre — which the publisher Redemption has made increasingly available — discover his more personal films, in which he explores the emotional ties between the living and dead. People caring for the pristine but ghoulish corpses of their friends, lovers reunited through death, and immortality as both an end and a beginning are some of the prominent themes in his work, and all presented with an ethereal serenity.
So on the surface “The Grapes of Death” is a bit of a puzzling film. For a movie that Rollin co-wrote, it’s a shockingly straight-forward horror story. A new pesticide contaminates the grapes used by a remote vineyard. Everyone who drinks the wine at the tasting party rapidly develops lesions and becomes murderous. Into this disaster comes Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), looking for her fiance. With ruthless efficiency the infected kill everyone that comes near her on her search, which leads her inexorably into the heart of the infection.
Gone are the usual moody shots of fetching corpses prowling scenic vistas. No one tends the victims, and even those who see them as human protect themselves with force. There is no pastoral idyll. There is instead a lot of gore, bodily destruction, and paranoia. Because of this, it’s not always popular among fans of films such as “Lips of Blood” or “The Living Dead Girl”. At the same time it isn’t gruesome, exploitive, or unhinged enough for some Euro horror aficionados.
It doesn’t help that the ending doesn’t seem to make sense — and not in an entertaining Lucio Fulci “Wait, they’re rats?” kind of way. No, this is more of a “Why would anybody do that?” sort of thing. Without revealing the ending, it’s the sort of left turn that can leave the viewer wondering if there’s an important scene missing.
On closer examination, however, the film is firmly rooted in Rollin’s romantic sensibilities and can only be understood as an exploration of the power of lasting affection under extreme circumstances. Almost every articulate person that Elisabeth encounters is bound to someone else in a way that is more important than the crisis at hand.
The first ones she encounters are a young woman and her father. The man is unpleasant and suspiciously reluctant to contact authorities. He’s also almost completely failing to hide his rotting skin. His love for his daughter becomes twisted by the disease, but it remains his primary focus even as his faculties fade. As for her… Let’s just say she’s stuck with him.
Next Elisabeth meets Lucie (Mirella Rancelot), a blind woman searching for her companion. Whether through naive compassion or her own incomprehension, Elisabeth does not explain the situation. She merely says that everyone has left. Lucie knows she’s being lied to and continues to search the man she can trust. He’s become infected, of course, but his deteriorating thoughts are likewise of her.
Even the pair of men destroying the infected are obsessed with their newly forged bond. Their self-defined identity as sane men in an insane world ties them together so closely that they hardly take note of Elisabeth, discussing their kills as a radio program she listens to in the background mentions the possibility of a cure for the outbreak.
But is it as simple as a disease? If this were a recent movie, it would be just that. Other Euro horror films might frame it as a demonic infestation, the start of the end times. “The Grapes of Death” remains ambiguous to the end.
That there is an illness is evident from the rapidly generated eruptions of the skin. This is likely related to the contaminated wine, as several characters and the voice of broadcast authority opine. Yet the murderous impulse does not correlate directly with the visible signs of disease. There are infected people who do not kill — who actually try to help Elisabeth. An entire crowd of supposedly irrational killers trap a survivor but wait for the arrival of another infected, as though conscious that the disposition of the victim does not belong to them. There are others, with no evident lesions, who delight in destruction. The two symptoms seem more coincidental than firmly linked.
My read is that the stresses of the illness dissolve the fragile bonds of society, stripping away everything but the basest expressions of the strongest relationships. When the final tie is broken nothing remains, and the help that comes for Elisabeth will be far too late.
Although imperfect and far from Rollin’s usual dark fairy tales, “The Grapes of Death” effectively creates an inverted vision of society. The most personal connections are all that remain, and their expression is unconventional to say the least. It’s the darkest expression of Rollin’s themes, representing relationships as a trap that can never be escaped. The implication is that social networks are self-consuming, and viewed from the age of personal updates it seems somewhat prescient.
Now if you’ll forgive me, I need to tend this sore that’s appeared on my mousing hand.