Often cited as France's first gore film, THE GRAPES OF DEATH was Jean Rollin's attempt to meld the zombie picture with the then-lucrative disaster epic. Though much smaller in scope than the output of Irwin Allen, this 1978 film is nonetheless effective, ranking among Rollin's best.
Marie-Georges Pascal plays a young woman who, after escaping an attack on a train by a disfigured assailant, finds herself in an idyllic vineyard in the countryside. She soon discovers that the local wine has been contaminated by pesticides (what greater disaster for the French than poisoned wine?), turning those who drink it into slowly-rotting zombies. This being a Jean Rollin film, the zombies remain "conscious," so they can muse upon the tragic nature of their condition.
The philosophical aspects tend to take a backseat here since Rollin was aiming for a more commercial film, though fans of THE LIVING DEAD GIRL and the like shouldn't be disappointed. Even with an eye on the box office the film is unmistakable Rollin's, the beautiful pastoral setting and hypnotic pace compensating for the lack of thematic depth.
THE GRAPES OF DEATH ably handles the more conventional elements of its story as well, establishing a series of harrowing situations that Pascal must flee, most of them punctuated with bursts of rudimentary gore (as well as a fair amount of nudity, though that's a given with Rollin). At one point Pascal takes refuge in a decrepit castle with Brigitte Lahaie--we should all be so lucky!--and suddenly the film becomes a French I AM LEGEND as the infected close upon the girls, beckoning them to join their ranks. Unfortunately, Rollin abandons this angle after only a few minutes.
Considering how well this appraoch paid off--it's one of the few non-porno films Rollin made that earned a profit--it's a wonder he didn't stick with the formula for subsequent movies, balancing aesthetic and commercialism. (I'm sure Rollin's backers did too--blame the artistic temperment, I guess.) Still, in the limited pantheon of artsy gore movies, THE GRAPES OF DEATH remains a highlight.
(Special thanks to Donna Williams for her assistance.)