A young woman discovers that the pesticide being sprayed on vineyards is turning people into killer zombies.
If not for the nudity and gory visuals, 'The Grapes of Death' could potentially work as part of a PSA campaign on pesticide and the harmful chemicals ruining the environment. Granted, this would be one of the most unusual and bizarre means of bringing awareness to an important issue, especially since the central plot device of this 1978 horror cheese is a zombie infestation plaguing a small French village. Given the current trend of anti-GMO fervor spreading like wildfire, the movie should garner a small audience of ready spectators frothing at the mouth at the sight of seeing their fears and warnings realized into a terrifying vision.
Of course, 'Grapes' doesn't expose an environmental message or prescribe to any particular political viewpoint. But it is curious to see an anxiety on the possible harmful effects of pesticides used as the catalyst for a horror feature. This, then, carries with it some apparent implications and a somewhat subtle social commentary, which is itself a common approach within the zombie genre — small hints referring back to the audience's present concerns and collective fears of viral epidemics. Now, these are not the customary monsters rising from the dead. Rather, they are people still living, but slowly rotting from the inside and turning normally quiet, caring villagers into murderous psychopaths.
Curiously, the story by Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, Christian Meunier and the movie's director Jean Rollin doesn't have the dangerous pesticide be the direct cause of the zombie outbreak. Instead, the toxic chemical spayed throughout a vineyard is the first in a chain reaction, as the residue on grapes mixes with the fermentation process, turning the wine into a lethal concoction that transforms locals from friendly faces into raging maniacs (basically, what happens every weekend at your neighborhood pub). At this point, you're thinking, "Aha! So that's what the title refers to," and you'd be correct. It's a little silly but still amusingly clever, I think. And before we're given the chance to excuse their behavior as the result of public drunkenness, the people show hideous, crusty scabs spreading on their arms and faces while chasing after the visiting Élizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and the final remaining villager still uninfected (Mirella Rancelot).
Other than the environmental angle, the movie could also work as a commercial for the health benefits of beer over wine. Drink sour, rotten grapes and you turn into an oozing, maniacal zombie; chug down a brewed combination of wheat, hops, rice and malted barley and live to tell about it. Of course, much of this plays out in the movie more as a matter of narrative convenience than as forethought on alcohol preference. And at least, it makes more sense than a conversation about World War II and the French Resistance that comes out of nowhere between a pair of beer-chugging buddies (Félix Marten and Patrice Valota). Not sure what Rollin was thinking when sneaking that little bit into the movie.
Speaking of Rollin, the French filmmaker is better known for his fantastique films on vampires and eroticism. With 'The Grapes of Death,' the director of entertaining Eurotrash sleaze moves from his usual format of the sensually undead to the repugnantly unsexy living dead. That's not to say Rollin doesn't at least try to sneak in some rather provocative moments, especially when having known pornographic actress at the time Brigitte Lahaie in a major speaking role. But much of the focus in the movie is on the outrageous and shockingly good gore effects along with his attempt to do something new and different. The end result is a mostly enjoyable zombie feature with plenty of good gore, laughs and a strange desire for some wine. No, wait. Maybe a beer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Grapes of Death' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Redemption" label. Housed inside a normal, blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc is accompanied by a 14-page booklet with an insightful essay by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog magazine. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
'The Grapes' go sour on Blu-ray with a generally strong and quite satisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.66:1). Some white specks and dirt make sporadic appearances, but is thankfully nothing too distracting. While the transfer is for the most part clean and respectable with good, stable film grain throughout, a few scenes are less than adequate and poorly resolved. The majority of the blurriness present is a result of the original photography and bad lens focus, not a fault in the encode. At its best, the video shows surprisingly great detail and sharpness of fine lines in random objects and in the interior of homes. Black levels are accurate and deep with very shadow delineation. Primaries benefit the most from the transition to high-definition, but the rest of palette remains cleanly rendered if only a bit on the dull side. With decent, mostly average contrast, the overall presentation is still a keeper and acceptable.
The audio, on the other hand, leaves a bittersweet aftertaste that's not quite as gratifying, yet gets the job done. The French uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack comes with a good deal of background noise, clicking and popping. Some spots are worse than others, but it can feel somewhat intrusive to the movie's enjoyment after a while. Vocals, for the most part, are clear and well-prioritized, but they also sound canned and hollow. There isn't much range to speak of, as the lossless mix largely falls flat and uniform with limited movement between the frequencies. This is most apparent with the lack of bass, whether in the musical score or some of the action sequences. Although coming in strong in the center of the screen, the high-rez track is mostly dull and average.
An unusual take on the zombie genre because it involves wine drinking and the use of pesticides, 'The Grapes of Death' is Rollin's departure from his usual theme of vampire eroticism. Remembered as one of the first gore films made in France, the movie is weirdly entertaining with very good special effects. The Blu-ray arrives with strong video but a slightly weaker audio presentation. Supplements look small but they're worthwhile nonetheless. In the end, the overall package is one for fans of the late French filmmaker and the genre as a whole.