This weekend I watched the 1978 French zombie film The Grapes of Death. Some Francophone zombie fans had recommended it to me as the best French zombie film after The Horde (which is one of my all-time favorites) and a classic among French zombie fans. I was eager to check it out.
The Grapes of Death opens with a shot of serious-looking men in breathing apparatuses grimly going about some sort of outdoor work. It could be right out of a contemporary post-apocalyptic zombie movie. After a few moments however, one realizes that these are simply vineyard workers spraying pesticide. Even so, it is a stern opening that nicely sets the tone of the film.
The Grapes of Death is about a mysterious flesh-rotting disease that strikes agricultural workers in an unnamed area of rural France. The protagonist is a young woman traveling by train on a vacation to Spain with her friend. When a strange man with rotting flesh enters her traincar and kills her friend, our heroine is forced to flee the train and run into the countryside (in a wine-making region) looking for a gendarme to whom she can report this horrible murder. Instead, she finds herself in a wasteland of mutilated bodies, local residents driven to murderousness, and a strange infection that turns people into sleepwalking killers.
There is a mystery to be solved here, and—without giving too much away—let’s just say that wine is involved.
It’s fun to watch a zombie story set in the French countryside, with its quaint villages, ancient farmers’ cottages, and rows and rows of grapevines. It’s a not a background in which one frequently sees—in movies, books, or video games—zombie outbreaks represented. Instead, it’s the kind of backdrop where you keep expecting the camera to pan over to reveal Allies and Nazis fighting one another. (Perhaps in this way, it reminded me of my first viewing of the 1966 Hammer zombie film The Plague of The Zombies, which was—to my knowledge—the first film to set zombies in a rural English village.)
There are many satisfying sequences of horror and zombie-violence, but the special effects shots in Grapes of Death may leave you remembering that it wasn’t made in 2013. (One decapitation was rendered so poorly that I wondered if I was supposed to think a mannequin had suddenly been introduced.) The Grapes of Death is at its most effective, however, when it dispenses entirely with effects-shots and delves into representations of group psychosis and the uncanny. A sequence of the protagonist fleeing from a horde of zombielike creatures—who slowly totter toward her with outstretched arms and bloody mouths whilst moaning “Je t’aime…”—was perhaps the most eerie part of the film.
In addition to some poor effects shots, I can’t recommend The Grapes of Death unreservedly because I think many contemporary zombie fans might struggle with the pacing. The action in The Grapes of Death is often strange and halting. I had trouble telling how much of this was just “Frenchyness” and the style of 1978, and how much was the intended effect of the filmmakers. But whatever the cause, it takes some getting used to. Some modern viewers may not have the patience.
Still, if you’re in the mood for a very different kind of zombie movie—in an unusual setting—The Grapes of Death might just be your cup of tea/wine/zombie-blood. With a few reservations, I recommend it.