The Grapes of Death (1978)
aka Les raisins de la mort
Directed by Jean Rollin
Written by Jean Rollin, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, and Christian Meunier
Starring Marie-Georges Pascal, Félix Marten, Serge Marquand, and Mirella Rancelot
The word “zombie” has been applied to so many things that it’s all but meaningless as a descriptor. Some are brought back from death, some are still alive. They could be under mental domination, operating on instinct, or possessed of full intellectual faculties. It may be spread as an infection, be the result of contamination, or achieved through hypnosis. Ravenous ghouls, mindless slaves, enraged masses: all zombies. About the only certainty in the term is that it implies a removal from normal society.
In The Grapes of Death, it’s an experimental pesticide that turns a vineyard’s wine into the mechanism of societal breakdown. It’s fitting in a way, since wine is the drink of community. In Roubles and the nearby villages it’s also a major part of the economy, and the yearly new wine tasting is an important festivity. It’s into this fragmenting world that Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) comes to meet her fiancé, who has been working on the new pesticide. Her desperate search leads her through disintegrating and inverted relationships, where love and attachment become the impetus for murder.
I’ve written about The Grapes of Death before, elaborating my read of it being about connections. You can go read it if you’d please, but the abbreviated version is that the usual Rollin lyricism is sublimated here into intimate violence. There are a lot of instances where people are killed by loved ones, even where other infected are present and wait to allow the proper one to come perform the murder. The newly forming society has rules, even if they’re inscrutable.
I called them infected, but a more apt word might be contaminated. This isn’t a plague, and although the violence is spreading all evidence points to it being containable. The authorities are working on a cure, which isn’t completely laughable as the contaminated populace is still alive. It does seem unlikely though that the mental realignment and erupting lesions can ever be reversed. Nor would they willingly seek to be cured. It reminds me of the intelligent vampires in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, who rebuild around their altered humanity. We only see a few days into the new world, but it’s clearly already forming.
In some regards, The Grapes of Death is not well-made. Some of the shots are murky, as though made without checking the light. The lesion effects are… colorful? The acting is sporadic, with some solid performances and a few marginal ones. It would be a mistake to dismiss it on account of all that. What’s a little poor technical quality compared to the enjoyment of watching an insular societal apocalypse?