Repugnant, tasteless, appalling and downright offensive are the short list of words used to describe and demonize one of the most shocking and controversial exploitation films ever released in drive-ins and grindhouse theaters in the late 70s and early 80s. Meir Zarchi's 'I Spit on Your Grave' has even been banned in several countries around the world, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, and only in the last ten or so years has it been made available for home video viewers. With graphic depictions of rape and other acts of violence against women, this low-budget shocker continues to deliver a visceral and disturbing experience which can at times be difficult to watch. It may be one of the most appalling motion pictures ever made, but it is also a grossly misunderstood one.
Taking a cue from similar themes explored in John Boorman's 'Deliverance,' the movie is ultimately a vigilante picture, through and through. Categorizing it within a rape/revenge genre, as it often is, actually downplays the narrative's impact and power because it oversimplifies the complex emotional arcs of the victims into an uncomplicated three-arc formula. Aside from 1976's 'Lipstick,' which places its plot in a courtroom procedural, 'I Spit on Your Grave' is one of the first to give a female character the right to fight her tormentors with equally violent measure, and the story refuses to easily fit within such a specified blueprint. As a vigilante flick, the heroine is allowed to exact vengeance with any means necessary, giving it the same respect and indulgence that movies like 'Death Wish,' 'Dirty Harry,' 'Straw Dogs,' and 'Mad Max' are afforded.
To look at it from this same point of view, 'Day of the Woman,' as it was originally titled, features a main character who feels not only traumatically victimized but also helpless, that the system might actually fail to serve fair justice. This then places power into the hands of the woman — another first as opposed to the aforementioned films with male leads — a person that reasons that such violations of the body ought to be met with a corresponding violation. This is where the gruesome rape scene comes in. It is meant to disturb, upset, and anger. And to suggest otherwise is as equally distressing as the depiction itself. We are made to identify with Jennifer (Camille Keaton) and be repulsed by her attackers. It has us sympathizing with her justification for revenge, and we cheer her on like we would a Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood character.
Meir Zarchi shows he has some impressive skills behind the camera, carefully balancing the mise en scène from suddenly turning into a glorification of violence. It's impressive, because this was intended as his directorial debut, and scenes are surprisingly suggestive and understated, clearly displaying Jennifer's harrowing ordeal — or any woman's, for that matter — exactly for what it is: ghastly and horrifying. When Jennifer first arrives at her summer cottage, she undresses before jumping into the lake, as if it were a natural thing to do and showing that she's comfortable in her surroundings. As the camera pulls back from the other side of the lake, the same scene implies something idyllic and serene. Of course, this is quickly countered by a vicious, unwarranted attack.
Although further down the lake, she is seen again naked in the same general area, surrounded by the same natural environment that offered tranquility and peace only moments before. The entire sequence is without a doubt extreme and gut-wrenching, but one moment in particular stands out as the most chilling. Already badly beaten and covered in dirt, Jennifer is confronted by another member of the group sitting atop a rock and playing the harmonica. As the other men appear from out of the forest, being naked is humiliating and signals vulnerability. As the rhythm of the harmonica speeds up, so does the camera, switching frantically from one predator to the next. This is a hair-raising moment that's frightening enough to consider 'I Spit on Your Grave' a horror feature.
As such, and like so many other movies within the horror genre, Zarchi's film can also be argued to have an underlining social commentary. Considering the era in which it was made much of this can go without saying. This was still a time when it seemed women received little help for such a crime, and it was dreadfully difficult to prosecute perpetrators. But aside from that angle, Zarchi also includes a contemptible speech by the gang's leader that reveals he justifies his actions. At that point, the camera turns to Jennifer and shows her dumbfounded expression. It's in this moment she realizes she must change her tactics and answer in kind. Clearly, he is asking for it, and Jennifer will satisfy his unspoken request.
'I Spit on Your Grave' (a.k.a 'Day of the Woman') has been called many things in its thirty-plus-year existence, but never — as far as I'm aware — powerful or masterful. Although I wouldn't go so far as the latter, I do find the film powerful and a gut-wrenching experience. The scenes of violence are indeed appalling and vulgar, but they are not without a seeming rationale and purpose. This controversial exploitation classic of the grindhouse era remains just as effective today as it was upon its initial release.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay Entertainment releases 'I Spit on Your Grave' as the Original 1978 Director's Cut package. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed in a blue eco-case, and the cover art features the original poster design that's made to look somewhat worn and unfolded. At startup, viewers are greeted by a series of skippable previews, such as the new remake releasing day-and-date with Meir Zarchi's film.
'I Spit on Your Grave' hits Blu-ray with an impressive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) that easily surpasses previous home video incarnations. Clarity and resolution are outstanding for a 30-year-old, low-budget movie, revealing the smallest details in the background. Foliage and tree bark is distinct, while dirt and tiny facial blemishes are plainly visible throughout. Although highlights can come off a bit stronger than normal in a few scenes, contrast is bright and well-balanced overall with crisp, clean whites. Black levels, too, are deep and accurate. But during night sequences, they falter noticeably with murky shadows that ruin visibility. Colors receive the biggest improvement, with brilliant reds and vivid greens dazzling the screen while secondary hues display a rich boldness. Flesh tones are not always consistent, but they appear natural for the most part.
The only thing keeping the image from receiving a higher grade is several instances of softness and poor resolution. This is, of course, related to the age of the print used and not a fault in the transfer. I also detected some mild noise reduction applied to a couple scenes, but it's nothing too obtrusive or distracting. In the end, this is the best the unforgettable cult shocker has ever looked, and fans will not hesitate to appreciate the level of improvements found on this Blu-ray.
Anchor Bay also puts together a very nice Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that exceeds expectations, considering the source material. As a purist, it would have been nice to see the original mono track offered, but this high-rez option is still quite impressive. The front soundstage comes with terrific fidelity and balance, displaying fluid movement and clarity between the channels. Aside from a few minor moments where the upper frequencies distort, which are really the only points of criticism, dynamic range is fairly consistent and crisply rendered. On occasion, atmospherics spread into the background convincingly for a satisfying soundfield. This makes for some striking imaging when characters are outside, surrounded by nature and wildlife. Dialogue reproduction is precise and intelligible from beginning to end. Despite the lack of low bass, this lossless mix of a grindhouse classic is a terrific listen that exploitation enthusiasts will enjoy.
'I Spit on Your Grave' has been released on home video a few times, with the Millennium Edition from Elite Entertainment being one of the finer packages. This Blu-ray edition of the movie ports over many of the supplements and comes with the same set of bonus features as the day-and-date DVD.
'I Spit on Your Grave (1978)' is one of the most controversial and brutally explicit pictures in the cult exploitation genre. This is primarily due to the difficulty seeing any merit in its graphic depictions of violence. But with some impressive camerawork from a first-time director Meir Zarchi, the movie does seem suggestive of an underlining social commentary about violence against women. This Blu-ray edition of the grindhouse classic arrives with a great video and audio presentation that fans will surely enjoy — a good improvement over previous releases. The supplements are not very extensive, but they're entertaining nonetheless, making this a strong package all around. It's worth a look, but neophytes take caution.