"Les Raisins de la Mort" or "Grapes of Death" was Jean Rollin first film with serious financing. This is significant in that every aspect of the film was affected by it. Unlike any prior Rollin film; it had a mainstream exploitation film theme and plot, full dialog, comprehensive script, and a general lack of Rollin like symbolism and surrealism.
In "Grapes of Death" the grapes in a French valley are sprayed with an insecticide which causes horrible deformity and homicidal insanity in those who are exposed to the insecticide or drink the wine. While the premise isn't strictly supernatural this film clearly adheres to the conventions of the zombie film genre. This genre has had a long history of on supernatural films including Argento's "Demons I & II" which are demonic; Cronenberg's "Rabid" and "Shivers" which result from medical experiments gone awry; and "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" which results from sonic pest control. Like most entries in the zombie genre the main characters are motivated by the need to survive the attacks of murderous zombie like creatures. The story is littered with grotesque zombies and the slaughter there of.
This film will appeal to the aficionado of zombie films. On the other hand it may not appeal to Rollin fans. The flip side of the having funding for a full scale B movie was that the money came with editorial restrictions. After this film, Rollin returned to self-funding his films to escape these restrictions with the result of what is regarded as second masterpiece, "Fancination," which is only rivaled by Rollin's prior film "Lips of Blood." The editorial control virtually strips this film of the typical Rollinesque symbology and surrealism. The observant Rollin fan will not be totally disappointed, Rollin sneaks in an occasional visual gem or surreal character including the Christ like crucifixion of a woman, her subsequent beheading and ultimate necromantic kiss; a Lilith like beauty bent on havoc and treachery; and zombies stumble around chanting "I love you. I love you Lucy." The words "I love you" in fact are heralds of death and destruction as deadly as is the tainted wine.
Besides the limited symbolism, Rollin also snuck in scenes that can only be interpreted as tributes to prior films. Lilith appears at one with two hounds. The hounds appear from nowhere and return to nowhere after the scene so they can only have been included for effect. The scene is clearly reminiscent of Barbara Steele's appearance in Mario Bava's "La Maschera del demonio," aka "Black Sunday" or "The Mask of Satan." I also suspect the manner in which the zombies claw fitfully at the mayor's house is a tribute to Vincent Price's "Last Man on Earth." I base this on the fact that the zombies behave markedly different than the more forceful hell bent zombies of "Night of the Dead" and "Demons" which are the standard for zombie moves.
Rollin is also known for his filming of striking beauties. And here Rollin shines. The film shows off to great advantage many lovelies including Brigitte Lahaie playing the Lilith like beauty. For Brigitte this was her long dreamed of break out of the adult entertainment industry. However this is a zombie film intended for a younger audience than most of Rollin's films and sex isn't included, just lovely shots of firm pert breasts and statuesque nudes. If you're looking for soft-porn, you would do better going and seeing the average R rated movie. If you're looking for beautiful female flesh mixed with perversity and gore, than this is a wonderful movie.
The Synapse Films version of the film I reviewed came with the extras you expect on a modern DVDs. There is an interview with Jean Rollin and Brigitte Lahaie, film trailers, etc. I can't comment on the film quality, I was forced to watch it on a portable's flat screen display that did not provide the best viewing environment since my DVD machine was broken.
This film is an excellent entry into the zombie film genre and if you like this genre then it is well worth viewing. If you dislike this genre, then you should avoid it. Don't watch it expecting a Rollin's tour de force, but if you like Rollin keep your eyes open and you will find plenty of classic Rollin peeping through for your enjoyment.