aka The Grapes of Death; The Raisins of Death (Les Raisins De La Mort)
Director – Jean Rollin, Screenplay – Jean-Pierre Bouyxou & Jean Rollin, Adaptation & Dialogue – Christian Meunier & Jean Rollin, Producer – Claude Geudj, Photography – Claude Becognee, Music – Philippe Sissmann, Special Effects/Makeup Effects – Yannick Josse, Raphael Marongiu & Alfredo Tiberi. Production Company – Rush Production/Film ABC/Off Production
Marie George Pascal (Elisabeth), Mirella Rancelot (Lucy), Felix Marten (Paul), Patrice Valota (Francois), Brigitte Lahaye [Lahaie] (Woman), Patricia Cartier (Antoinette), Paul Bisciglia (Kowalski), Serge Marquand (Lucas), Michel Herval (Michel)
Elisabeth, along with her friend Brigitte, travels from Paris to visit her fiance Michel who manages the Roubelais winery in the countryside. When they stop at a station, a strange man gets into their carriage. Elisabeth flees when she sees the man’s face is covered in sores and that he has killed Brigitte. She takes refuge at a farmhouse, only to find that the farmer has the same sores. The farmer goes crazy, killing his daughter. In her flight, Elisabeth comes across the blind Lucy and helps her back to her village, only to encounter slaughtered bodies everywhere and find that everyone still alive has been turned into zombies. Aided by two farmers, Elisabeth realises that the local wine has become toxic and infected the populace.
A cult grew up around French director Jean Rollin (1939-2010) for his fetishistic, strikingly poetic vampire films. The films that most of the Rollin cult rest on are his earliest ones that include the likes of Le Viol du Vampire (1967), The Naked Vampire (1970), Le Frisson des Vampires (1971) and Virgins and Vampires/Caged Virgins (1971). Rollin made numerous films in either the horror or sex genres throughout the 1970s and 80s. His genre output has included works such as The Iron Rose (1973), Demoniacs/Curse of the Living Dead (1974), Lips of Blood (1975), Fascination (1979), The Night of the Hunted (1980), Zombies Lake (1981), The Living Dead Girl (1982), Two Orphan Vampires (1997), The Fiancee of Dracula (2002), Night of the Clocks (2007) and The Mask of Medusa (2010).
Pesticide/The Grapes of Death was one of the films that Rollin made towards the end of the 1970s and into the 80s, a period that his cult generally regards as weaker and much more commercial work than the arty material that first gained him attention. It is a zombie film and clearly comes informed by the influential hit of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Rollin gives it a uniquely French spin – for example, the zombies have been created by drinking toxic wine. (You could never have made The Grapes of Death in a country that has less of a wine-drinking culture like the US – or at least you would have ended up with a zombie film about the upper-class and fashionable yuppies going amok). Moreover, in a rather amusing touch, it is the working class beer-drinkers who become the seventh cavalry and save the heroine towards the end. The use of pesticide as an explain-all for the zombies is similar to The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974).
Though Pesticide/The Grapes of Death has a mixed reputation in Jean Rollin’s oeuvre, I liked it. Rollin creates a number of fine scenes. There is the sequence with the two girls on the train, where Marie George Pascal goes to the bathroom as the train stops, whereupon the mysterious Paul Bisciglia enters the carriage and then comes and sits across from Pascal as she returns to the berth. He sits there, saying nothing where we keep wondering where her friend is, and all we see are the sores on his face that seem to be growing every time that she looks up, before she flees and finds her friend dead in the toilet. Next, Pascal runs out into the countryside, coming to a farmhouse inhabited by a man who also has sores on his face where, after she explains her problem, the man says “We have no phone … we have no car,” even though they clearly do. Pascal goes upstairs only to find a dead body in the bedroom, which the daughter (Patricia Cartier) explains is her mother and begs Pascal’s help in escaping. They plan to go but the father comes, attacking them, tearing the daughter’s top off revealing that she has sores too, and pitchforking her. Pascal gets to the car, followed closely by the father who begs her to run him over.
The latter half heads towards a more standard zombie apocalypse. In tone though, Pesticide is very different to a Romero zombie film with Rollin going for a more naturalistic look. The gore and zombie makeups alternate between the passable and the amateurish but Rollin creates a sense of constant dis-ease. There is a very effective scene where Marie George Pascal meets blind girl Mirella Rancelot lost in a field and offers to guide her back to her village. However, as the journey gets underway, we see burning houses and dead bodies everywhere where Pascal keeps trying to assure Rancelot that they are not there yet or that everything is okay, despite Rancelot being able to sense the rising panic. There is a fabulous sequence during the middle of this where Mirella Rancelot wanders off alone into the middle of the village and is surrounded by zombies and keeps feeling the threat without being aware of what it is. Next, Marie George Pascal returns to find Mirella’s boyfriend has crucified her to the door of her house, followed by his beheading her and later being found kissing the severed head. Rollin regular and French porn actress Brigitte Lahaie also turns up with great presence as a zombie queen (how or why she remains unaffected is something that is never explained), walking through the village in a white nightgown accompanied by two hounds, one on either side, as she lures strangers to their doom.