❉ We cover two new features making their UK debut in ‘I Spit On Your Grave: The Complete Collection’.
“More blackly comical and self-aware than the original, ‘I Spit On Your Grave: Déjà vu’ is a non-stop rollercoaster ride into the backwoods of hell… a gnarly, well-constructed romper that sits nicely alongside the original’s own remakes”
One of the most notorious titles on the famous early 1980s DPP list of ‘video nasties’ was Meir Zarchi’s 1978 grubby rape-and-revenge shocker I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman); a film so controversial in its extensive portrayal of a gang of country ‘bumpkins’ taking it in turns to rape city girl Jennifer Hills (Buster Keaton’s grand-daughter Camille Keaton), and her subsequent gruesome revenge, that it still repulses audiences to this day.
Adding to its infamy are the continuing, subsequent debates over the film’s merits and reappraisals from reviewers, scholars and its creator defending it as a feminist picture, with its torrents of sexual violence and objectification of the film’s female lead serving as an unbearable build up to a satisfying catharsis of violence and emasculation towards Keaton’s male attackers.
Look at it however you want, even if calling it ‘entertainment’ is pushing it, you can’t deny the power the film yields and the lasting divisiveness it has achieved through the decades. Its notoriety has also kept director Zarchi’s hat in the ring so to speak – as, apart from the half decent gritty street drama Don’t Mess With My Sister (1985) he has managed to sustain a career in ‘the biz’ with the film’s many re-releases, remakes, remake sequels and ultimately his own sequel to the original.
Which brings us to the good folks at Kaleidoscope Entertainment’s spanking new Blu-ray boxset I Spit On Your Grave: The Complete Collection which not only includes the original 1978 cinematic pariah but also the 2010 remake of the same name, its two sequels I Spit On Your Grave 2 (2013) and I Spit On Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine (2015), Zarchi’s own direct sequel to his original I Spit On Your Grave: Déjà Vu (2019) and recent official feature length documentary Growing Up With I Spit On Your Grave (2019) courtesy of Zarchi’s son Terry Zarchi. It’s the latter two titles we’ll be focusing on here seeing as both features make their UK debut with the release of the Kaleidoscope boxset.
Growing Up With I Spit On Your Grave (2019)
Meir’s son Terry Zarchi is at the helm of this retrospective celebration of the original film and its legacy. He approaches it from a personal, family perspective: He details his old man’s upbringing in Israel. Meir’s is the classic story of the little kid who was enchanted by going to the movies. He would walk out of the theatre after seeing such classics as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) and vow that his future was in filmmaking.
As a child he saved up to buy a Bolex, shot home movies with friends and ran strips of 16mm film through a magic lantern. It is interesting to learn of his start in the industry as scriptwriter on Israeli films before his move to America which would see him gear up to direct his notorious debut.
Meir discusses the ‘fateful’ day he and his daughter Tammy happened upon a bloodied and naked rape victim who emerged from the park that Meir’s children would frequent – and the subsequent difficulty in resolving the incident with the police as his prime inspiration to make the film.
We then dive into the production of the film which is dissected into several chapters. Thorough it may be that the making of ISOYG was for the most part hassle-free and therefore lacking in any juicy on-set horror stories for sensation seeking viewers, for the more discerning film nerd such as myself it is still a fascinating look at the making of an economical piece of film-making that made quite the splash and it isn’t without its’ noteworthy anecdotes. A stand-out one would be the tantrum Camille Keaton had after Zarchi told her they’d be doing the very stressful ‘rock rape’ scene again and her subsequent demanding that Zarchi stripped off his clothes and demonstrate to her how it should be done.
It is also quite disarming to hear from some of the male cast members. Their sound, personable natures somewhat break the spell of what was for years a nasty, grimy artefact of dubious origin. Eron Tabor who played Johnny is particularly interesting when he discusses the detailed back-storying he created for his character to reason why he would be capable of committing the heinous acts that he does. It adds more depth to a character that, for this viewer, is every bit as darkly fascinating as David Hess’ Krug in the earlier Last House on the Left (1972). The film’s lasting legacy also stirs up mixed emotions in Tabor; a man proud of his acting achievements in the film but averse to revisiting it and even in two minds about whether he should have participated in the film in the first place.
The film then goes on to detail its’ troubled distribution history – being rejected (understandably) by all the big studios and Meir’s financial struggle independently distributing the film bearing its’ original title Day of the Woman. The film wound up in the hands of the Jerry Gross Organization; a producer and distributor who knew exactly how to market such exploitation fare such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (1979) and Ulli Lommel‘s The BoogeyMan (1980). He was responsible for the title change which we learn Zarchi and Keaton hated and still dislikes to this day – and for the iconic poster that depicts the back of a bloodied and bruised woman with her clothes torn and brandishing a knife. This was not Camille Keaton but supposedly a young then-unknown by the name of Demi Moore! The film goes to the trouble of ensuring this is indeed fact but ultimately one can’t be a hundred percent sure.
The documentary proceeds to chart its’ success on the burgeoning home video market before doing its best to discuss the film’s moral and ethical standing. Terry Zarchi connects with various fans and critics to discuss the film’s cultural and social relevance as well as why detractors would feel they way they do about the picture as much as those who defends its supposed feminist viewpoint. One can’t help but feel a little cynical in Terry’s determination to celebrate the film as an arty feminist statement and Meir is quick to dismiss its’ tag as a horror film. The film is an exploitation flick – made at a time when such transgressive films were tenfold and potentially huge earners. Its exploitative DNA further exposed when Meir chose to initially stamp the screenwriting credits with a female pseudonym.
I Spit On Your Grave: Déjà Vu (2019)
It’s as if 83-year-old auteur Meir Zarchi has relished his time back in the director’s chair in his bid to cement his legacy even further judging by I Spit On Your Grave: Déjà Vu‘s outrageous runtime of two hours and 28 minutes. Yes, that’s correct – two and a half hours of unhinged grindhouse brutality! It’s as if Mr. Zarchi is going out with a bang and he’s doing so on his own terms, but how does it fare as a satisfying slice of woman-scorned exploitation?
We open in Litchfield County; the scarcely populated, dusty town of Kent, Connecticut. A town also lacking a police force as mentioned by one of it’s kooky residents; a device not only there to heighten a sense of isolated jeopardy but I suspect to also keep things simple and within budget like it’s predecessor. After a few brief flashbacks a la stock footage we open with Maria Olsen’s hatchet-faced Becky Stillman; scorned wife of Johnny (whom Camille Keaton’s Jennifer Hills castrated in the original film) who is sat in her late husband’s service garage listening to a press interview the now-successful Jennifer is giving about her traumatic past and how she has turned it into a best-selling book. Becky makes some calls and rounds up a band of bitter and bloodthirsty family members of those Jennifer murdered in stone cold revenge to exact some vengeance of their own.
We then cut to the graceful Keaton; reprising her role as Jennifer sat in a posh restaurant and dining with her fashion model daughter Christy (an Asia Argento-evoking Jamie Bernadette). After an exchange to establish their successes it is not long before a van pulls up as they are leaving and they are both kidnapped by two of the deranged backwoods country dwellers. The two ladies are soon confronted by the god-fearing and bloodthirsty Becky, and before long both mother and daughter are separated to tackle and evade the roll call of grotesque and deadly characters on their own. A few genuinely surprising developments later, and taking centre stage, Christy is condemned to suffer a carnival of horrors alone just like her mother did – before toughening up to fulfill the mantle of lady vengeance in a blood-drenched final act.
The horrifying tribe of hillbillies are a set of twisted stereotypes and caricatures, played to such exaggerated goofiness that it elicits a blackly comic tone to the carnage. You can forgive yourself for thinking they are all devilish rejects from a Rob Zombie flick (see what I did there?). Whilst I am not a fan of Zombie’s style-over-scare efforts that is no criticism, Maria Olsen’s Becky Stillman is a joy to watch and is clearly relishing playing the militant psychobilly matriarch and we love to hate her. She has carved herself a highly prolific body of work out of the indie horror scene and I have an inkling this could be one of her finest hours. Jim Tavare’s Herman; the stammering ‘simpleton’ father of the impotent Matthew of the original lends a grotesque The Hills Have Eyes-esque bent to the proceedings. The raving backwoods loonies get to serve up some hilariously colourful dialogue: ”We ain’t no bunch of moron hicks you cunt!” for one.
The film offers up other minor characters just as deranged and cartoonish. Keaton’s Jennifer – lost deep in the woods happens upon a hag on a tricycle who stops to utter the famous ”I’ll get you my pretty!” before cycling off which was a wonderful moment that made me wonder if Zarchi did indeed see his sequel as some sort of perverted The Wizard of Oz, beating Ari Aster to the punch. Zarchi himself reprises his cameo from the original as an organ-playing priest in the local church; absurdly edited to look as though organ playing is all he seems to do which lends strange yet effective atmospherics to some of the more emotionally driven scenes.
Keaton herself appears to be having fun reprising her role. The original film has defined her career as much as Zarchi’s – even going on to appear in unofficial follow-ups such as Donald Farmer’s Savage Vengeance (1993) and shows some willing to get down and dirty while remaining the graceful Dame of exploitation that she is. Jamie Bernadette should be commended for her challenging turn as Christy and makes an effective bad-ass after being subjected to the film’s trademark rape scenes, getting covered in blood and wondering around the woods starkers.
As I feared, the film’s frightening run-time did become a problem to the film’s latter 90 minutes. It starts off at such rapid-fire rate throwing us headfirst into the action that it was to be expected it would eventually start to stumble along and outstay its welcome. Zarchi should have been as merciless to some of his bloated scenes as he was to his screen villains. The gruesome acts of revenge would have been best served with a lot of the fat trimmed off – at least it’s in keeping with the current trend of overlong horrors (cough*ITPart2*cough*Midsommar*cough)!
A tighter runtime would have guaranteed ISOYG: Déjà Vu a non-stop rollercoaster ride into the backwoods of hell but don’t let that put you off as there is a lot to enjoy here. More blackly comical than the original and unavoidably self-aware; Déjà Vu is a gnarly, well-constructed romper that sits nicely alongside the original’s own remakes, the faux-grindhouse offerings of Zombie and the many versions of Texas Chainsaw Massacre we’ve seen – and impressively done on a much lower budget.
Terry Zarchi is clearly proud to be celebrating his father’s highly controversial and successful film and the path it has forged in American cinematic culture. He has made it a proud family affair – based in depictions of savage rape and bloody revenge. He could have probed his father in more revealing and uncomfortable ways about his own moral compass when making the film. Instead it’s a bright future for the good-ship ISOYG – for all its franchise flourishes with remakes, sequels and the like. Viewed as a jam packed Blu-ray supplement to the original feature Growing up with… is a treat for all discerning horror-hounds and film collectors and will be most welcome in the Kaleidoscope boxset. ISOYG may well have a questionable place in these unsettling times of Weinsteins, Epsteins and the whole #metoo movement but I’m not sure this overlong and personal dedication is quite necessary as a standalone film.
The Complete Collection/I Spit On Your Grave: Original (Special Edition Double Disc):
❉ Audio commentary by writer/director Meir Zarchi (Blu-ray exclusive)
❉ Audio commentary by cult film critic Joe Bob Briggs (Blu-ray exclusive)
❉ Excerpt “Why Zarchi Made I Spit On Your Grave (1978)”
❉ Terry Zarchi 8mm film with Camille Keaton
❉ Growing Up with I Spit on Your Grave – full length feature documentary available on disc 2 of I Spit On Your Grave: Original (Special Edition) – explore the myths, impact and legacy of the unforgettable 1978 film, packed with never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews
The Complete Collection/I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà Vu (2019):
❉ Audio commentary by cult film critic Joe Bob Briggs (Blu-ray exclusive)
❉ 10 behind-the-scenes clips
❉ I Spit on Your Grave: The Complete Collection was released on Blu-ray and DVD on 5 October 2020 courtesy of Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Platforms. Order via Amazon UK. ‘Growing Up with I Spit on Your Grave’ was released as a standalone digital title on 5 October 2020.
❉ Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).