‘The Grapes of Death’ (1978) /’Night of the Hunted’ (1980)

Redemption’s unleashing of remastered prints on DVD and Blu-Ray of the output of poetic French horror maestro Jean Rollin continues with two unconventional additions to the zombie genre, if you stretch your definition of zombies. These films are about man-made illnesses created by pollution or radiation, and fall into a subgenre about government collusion (e.g. The Crazies, Blue Sunshine). In both films, zombification is a gradual process that fills its helpless victims with fear and loathing, thus increasing the sense of personal horror. They are thinly veiled expressions of social decline and malaise, the loss of tradition, the deprivation of culture, and the general insanity of the modern. In other words, they are essentially conservative cultural critiques. With nudity.

The Grapes of Death is set in an infected rural village known for its wine. The heroine find herself there after an unfortunate incident on a train and spends the rest of the film in growing states of hysteria and rage. The contrast of Rollin’s lovely atmospheric visuals and the nightmarishly brutal and cruel events launch this film closer to the realms of Bosch or Octave Mirbeau than to George Romero.

Night of the Hunted almost doesn’t reveal itself as a zombie movie, and Tim Lucas’ liner notes are right to point out the connection with early David Cronenberg. The mysterious story of an amnesiac woman (an excellent Brigitte Lahaie) found wandering in the night gradually explains itself in the setting of a tower that’s a combination of apartment building and top secret research lab. Characters call it the black tower (“le tours noir”). Despite a lengthy softcore sex scene for exploitation purposes, this film is an anguished moan at the loss of identity and a perversely romantic insistence on human feeling.

RATING 6 / 10