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Les Raisens de la Mort

a.k.a. THE GRAPES OF DEATH / PESTICIDE
Rush Productions [1978] 90′
country: France
director: JEAN ROLLIN
cast: MARIE-GEORGES PASCAL, FELIX MARTEN,
cast: SERGE MARQUAND, BRIGITTE LAHAIE
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There was something of a craze for zombie films after George Romero’s smash success NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the growing exploitation industry was more than happy to provide. The years immediately following saw the rise and fall of the BLIND DEAD series, Bob ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, and the under-seen Spanish / Italian co-production LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE [recently re-released on disc as THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE]. This momentary surge in the popularity of the undead would prove minor in comparison to what was to follow, with Romero’s sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD jump starting a world-wide gore craze that continues to this day.

Sneaking into French cinemas just months before Romero’s second DEAD film saw its first European release was LE RAISENS DE LA MORT, a little-known effort from French director Jean Rollin, who was best known then, as he is now, for directing a number ofBava-inspired Gothic vampire eroticas . Rollin’s film took considerable inspiration from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but capitalized on the 1970′s disaster boom and the post-THE BIRDS demand for ecologically-minded horror as well. Though derivative in many ways, RAISENS was hardly deserving of its fate. Lost in the shuffle when DAWN OF THE DEAD exploded onto European cinema screens, it wouldn’t see release of any kind outside of its native France until the early 1980′s. Even then it would remain an obscurity, overshadowed by largely inferior productions [think HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD,ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, and BURIAL GROUND] that had broader appeal due to their high quotient of ‘hard-gore’ effects.

Synapse Films did much to right things in releasing LE RAISENS DE LA MORT to disc in 2002, giving those of us in the United States our first ever opportunity to see the film [a newer release from Redemption was slated for 2008, but canceled].

LES RAISENS DE LA MORT follows Elisabeth [Pascal] as she traverses desolate rural France after being chased from a passenger train by a crazed man with oozing lesions on his face. It doesn’t take her long to discover that something is amiss in the hills near her fiance’s vineyard. Something infectious is spreading, causing the people in the area to go insane – their bodies rotting along with their minds. She sees a farmer kill his own daughter, only to turn and beg Elisabeth to run him down with a car. A young blind girl leads her into a village full of the crazed and the corpses of their victims, where she meets a suspicious local beauty [Lahaie] who’s body is perfect but whose mind may already be gone.

With the help of two non-local construction workers, who have taken to hunting down the infected of the area, Elisabeth escapes the village. The trio head into the rural hills once again, making a bee-line for the vineyard. Along the way they come to a startling conclusion – perhaps the recent celebration of the grape harvest [and the hefty amounts of wine-drinking that accompanied it] are responsible for the spreading craziness. Ground zero appears to be the vineyard, where the discovery of Elisabeth’s zombified [but still intelligible] fiance forces her to reconsider her alliance to the gun-toting construction men . . .

While dressed in familiar horror trappings, Rollin’s LE RAISENS DE LA MORT is anything but traditional. Like the majority of his work, its success depends largely on the effectiveness of its often surreal atmospherics, with plot and characterization tending to fall by the wayside. RAISENS has arresting visuals to spare, from long takes of the dreary fog-shrouded locations to weirder stuff, like a brief sequence in which Brigitte Lahaie wanders the village of the dead with a torch in one hand and two dogs tethered to the other [an homage to Bava's BLACK SUNDAY]. Fortunately, it also possesses one of Rollin’s more grounded screenplays. The story is simple, if episodic – a series of horror vignettes hung about Elisabeth’s singular quest to reach her fiance. Marie-Georges Pascal [I AM FRIGID . . . WHY?] plays the part very well, taking the limited role – wander, stare, scream, repeat – and turning it into one that’s very easy to identify with. We’re as lost as she is in a world turned topsy-turvy, and empathize entirely when she is finally returned to the arms of her ailing lover.

With the film’s perspective being, primarily, that of Elisabeth, other characters tend to be minor in nature. Elisabeth begins RAISENS with a young friend, but she is dispensed with before we really have a chance to meet her. Others are likewise fleeting – an infected farmer and his daughter, the blind Lucy [who unwittingly leads Elisabeth into the doomed village], and a handful of individual zombies met along the way. The two construction workers prove the most substantial secondary characters, and their personalities [intentionally] leave little for the audience to identify with. Of all the secondary performances, the most memorable is perhaps that of Brigitte Lahaie as an infected beauty whose perfect looks conceal the rot within. Lahaie was a porn star at the time, and had worked with Rollin on his adult effort VIBRATIONS SEXUELLES in 1977. Here Rollin can be credited with giving Lahaie her first serious role, and she’s quite good – appearing genuinely demented at times. Lahaie’s collaborations with the director would continue for decades, through 1979′s FASCINATION and beyond.

Rollin’s zombies are an interesting lot. Their conceptual connection to the Romero originals is obvious, but the director has no trouble in by-passing the ground rules set by that film and made all but sacred by DAWN OF THE DEAD later the same year. The most immediate difference is that Rollin’s zombies are not dead. Rather, they are in a tortuous state of living-death – rotting from the outside in after unknowingly ingesting a new pesticide. What’s more, they are conscious, fully aware of their actions even as they are powerless to stop them. The blind Lucy’s brother screams, “I love you!” as he takes off her head off with a hatchet, and the farmer is devastated that he has become so cruel as to kill his own daughter. The screen wouldn’t see zombies this multi-dimensional again until 1985′s DAY OF THE DEAD, and none so tragic. Make-up effects are excellent, by and large, having been overseen by Italian import Alfredo Tiberi [SALO - THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN]. Much of the putrefaction of those infected is lovingly chronicled, with sufficiently disturbing results.

The claustrophobic focus of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [itself a carry over from Matheson's I AM LEGEND and its subsequent filmed version THE LAST MAN ON EARTH] is not emulated here – as Rollin himself has stated, “I chose to make my people travel.” Once Elisabeth is chased from the train RAISENS is full of wide-open spaces, with much of the action taking place around dilapidated old houses or ruins outright – the distinct lack of anything new enforces the emphasis on decay with the illusion that the countryside itself is falling apart. The fine location shooting in the dreary and often fog-shrouded Cévennes lends RAISENS a dreamlike aesthetic that’s in keeping with Rollin’s signature style, making the frequent nightmarish incursions all the more effective. A suitably restrained electronic score by Philippe Sissman only elevates the feeling of unearthliness that pervades the film.

The Synapse Films DVD release from 2002 presents LE RAISENS DE LA MORT in its original 1.66:1 widescreen framing via an anamorphically enhanced and progressive transfer. Mastered from the original 35mm negatives, the transfer looks very nice – especially when the age and budgetary limitations of the film are taken into account. Color, contrast, and detail are all quite strong, and damage is minimal. I noticed no instances of edge enhancement or encoding errors and the content is given a nice dual layer spread. Audio is presented in a healthy Dolby Digital monophonic French track that sounds very good, but is occasionally limited by the nature of the production. The feature is augmented with well translated English subtitles, presented in a very legible black bordered yellow font. Extras are limited but interesting, and include a 35 minute sit down with director Jean Rollin and actress Brigitte Lahaie [in English - most of the information is in reference to other films], a text biography and filmography for Rollin, an image slide show, and two trailers [French and German]. Nigel J. Burrel provides the brief but excellent liner notes.

LES RAISENS DE LA MORT is widely credited as being the first French gore film, though it can’t compete with the like of DAWN OF THE DEAD, ZOMBI 2, or any number of knock-offs of the two in terms of shear graphic violence. The real reason to see it is for Rollin’s superb atmospheric direction – this is certainly one of his strongest efforts. Strong performances from Pascal [who would die by her own hand just four years later] and Lahaie definitely sweeten the deal – and there are zombies, of course. In a sub-genre full of mindless derivations, LES RAISENS DE LA MORT remains refreshingly original, unique, and deserving of recommendation. The Synapse Films release is a must-buy as far as I’m concerned – see it.

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