THE GRAPES OF DEATH (1978) (Blu-ray)
Director: Jean Rollin
Redemption/Kino Lorber

Even if you're not a fan of Jean Rollin's sexy surreal vampire flicks, you might like this gory but atmospheric zombie tale from the French genre director. Obviously owing a bit to George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (as well as his 1973 film, THE CRAZIES), these zombies actually don't eat human flesh – they're an infected breed that are gradually decomposing and driven to violent madness. Believe it or not, I always wondered if Rollin saw David Durston's I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, since several scenes are similar to ones in that rabid funfest.

The shocks commence when two young ladies, Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal, who sadly, took her own life in 1985) and her friend are traveling on a seemingly deserted train. Elizabeth is left alone in a car, and in walks a strange man. Each time the camera cuts back to him, his face is in a more severe state of decomposition, until he's left with a huge, bleeding blister on his face. Elizabeth is horrified and runs out of the car as the man proceeds to chase her. Discovering that he murdered her friend, Elizabeth jumps off the train and heads into the French countryside. Her next encounter is the sight of an infected farmer stabbing his daughter with a pitchfork, after which she is lead into a village by a blind girl who has no idea what's going on. As they arrive there, more random acts of murder are committed by the inhabitants who are all rotting and quite insane. It is later discovered that the town had consumed lots of wine that was made from chemically contaminated grapes. The petite but feisty Elizabeth is then aided by two burly farmers who luckily only drink beer.

Although Rollin's pacing can be lethargic, THE GRAPES OF DEATH (known in France as "Les Raisins de la Mort") is gripping and unsettling, making you want to anxiously proceed from one episodic event to the other. The make-up on the pus-laden zombies is effective (if a bit amateurish looking in some shots), and Rollin's use of eerie, secluded countryside settings and ruins (especially night scenes) makes for some opulent, haunting atmosphere. A standout scene is when a topless woman is crucified on a front door and decapitated by one of the infected villagers (her head is then carried around as a souvenir). Euro cult fans will love the lively bit part by Brigette Lahaie (FASCINATION), who gladly disrobes when questioned about her well-being! This is much different than Rollin’s comparatively silly ZOMBIE LAKE, so you’ll want to give this one a shot.

First released on home video in the U.S. by Synapse Films and their 2002 DVD, Redemption and Kino Lorber now present it in High Definition on this special edition Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer contains the film’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and looks splendid throughout. With some minimal grain and speckling about, the image is extremely sharp in detail, with the film’s numerous nighttime scenes coming through beautifully and pastures of the open locales during daytime scenes being exceptional in HD. Colors are also remarkably bold, standing out in some scenes more than others. The film is presented in the original French language (with optional English subtitles) and the mono audio is perfectly fine with no noticeable defects.

There’s a short introduction (2.22) by the late director videotaped in 1998, as he talks briefly about the film and shoots down any comparison to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. There’s also a long interview with Rollin (49.00) videotaped in France in 2007 after a screening of SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES (which he criticizes as being dated). The interview doesn’t focus on GRAPES OF DEATH, but rather, Rollin’s various literary influences, including French comics of the 1960s and the works of “Phantom of the Opera” author Gaston Leroux. The film’s original French trailer is included, as are trailer for other Rollin titles: FASCINATION, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED, ZOMBIE LAKE, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL and TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES. The disc’s packaging contains the fact-filled booklet “Anti-Virgins & Anti-Vampires: The Anti-Rollin of Jean Rollin”, by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas. The essay focuses on this film and NIGHT OF THE HUNTED, but it also contains a lot of other information, including comparisons between Rollin and David Cronenberg, as well as bits about Rollin directing many XXX films under pseudonyms to keep employed. (George R. Reis)