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I Spit on Your Grave (1978): Unrated DVD Review

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) movie poster I Spit on Your Grave

Theatrical Release: November 22, 1978 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated (Theatrical Cut: R)

Writer/Director: Meir Zarchi

Cast: Camille Keaton (Jennifer Hills), Eron Tabor (Johnny), Richard Pace (Matthew Lucas), Anthony Nichols (Stanley), Gunter Kleemann (Andy), Alexis Magnotti (Johnny's Wife), Tammy Zarchi (Johnny's Daughter), Terry Zarchi (Johnny's Son), Traci Ferrante (Waitress), Bill Tasgal (Porter), Isac Agami (Butcher)

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Things begin harmlessly enough in I Spit on Your Grave, as a young short story writer from New York City drives out to the country for a summer she intends to spend penning her first novel. Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) hopes the quiet, unspecified small town just a few hours outside of Manhattan will stimulate her creative juices. In an entirely unexpected way, she's right.

Not long after settling into her rented home, Jennifer is disturbed by a couple of immature gas station employees, who go joyriding on a motor boat past where she is peacefully starting her book. Soon, these knuckleheads and the two other local men she has encountered team up to rape her.
Bruised, bloodied, degraded, and dirtied, she leaves this horrifying scene, shown in unsettling detail, only to face another round led by a different one of the men. With this more painful second act consummated, Jennifer returns home, only to have her phone call for help quickly cut off by the same gang of four, who use force to enable the final two to have their way with her.

Talk about an unpleasant first half! Chances are you've never seen the crime of rape dramatized in such a way. It is too easy to call it shocking, but it is certainly designed to be so and it would have to be in order for the film's vengeful second half to elicit your sympathy and support. Jennifer is not really killed, as she is supposed to be by Matthew (Richard Pace), the comparably moral, mentally impaired grocery delivery boy of the group.

Nietzsche famously stated that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger and Jennifer Hills becomes proof of that as she pre-emptively asks God for forgiveness and proceeds to get even with each of her violators in grandiose ways.

So much for a quiet summer... aspiring novelist Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) finds her writing process disturbed by joyriding jackasses. In the backwoods of Connecticut, Jennifer (Camille Keaton) is savagely terrorized by four lowlifes.

So long as you're not a rapist, you will find the final fifty minutes of I Spit on Your Grave tremendously more gratifying and watchable than the fifty which precede it. But then what isn't more gratifying and watchable than that graphic, gruesome first half? Non-scripted violence. Crimes against children. The Holocaust. I can't think of much mainstream cinema that goes to the lengths to appall that this 1978 film does. Of course, this doesn't qualify as mainstream cinema, certainly not in this unrated 101-minute director's cut that this week resurfaced on DVD and premiered on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment alongside an unlikely remake's home video debut.

Expectedly, the original I Spit on Your Grave has an interesting release history. IMDb presently claims the movie was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. I doubt that and can find no believable record to support it, even when looking under the movie's first title, Day of the Woman, intended to establish it as some kind of feminist-friendly women's empowerment picture. I don't think anyone would take such a suggestion too seriously, regardless of the attached title. The heroine spends at least half the film's runtime naked and being helplessly humiliated by sleazeballs of the lowest order. Naturally, there is no way not to sympathize with the victim and cheer on her probably excessive and certainly illegal payback methods. Still, this is hardly a poster child for women's lib.

To assume that this was the true intention perhaps overestimates the vision of writer/director Meir Zarchi, who had barely worked in movies before this and almost never again afterwards. Following their collaboration, Zarchi married star Camille Keaton in 1979 and they were divorced three years later.

Keaton, the grand-niece of silent film icon Buster Keaton, had previously appeared in six "giallo" Italian horror movies. As the thin, long-haired aspiring novelist turned retributory badass, Ms. Keaton is unquestionably the best thing about I Spit and her performance stands out by more than just an easy process of elimination. Alas, her career didn't take off after this disquieting schlockfest, nor after she became the fourth and final wife of producer Sidney Luft (former husband of Judy Garland) in 1993. Keaton's biggest film credit since I Spit is its unofficial, largely unknown and unloved sequel, Savage Vengeance (a.k.a. I Will Dance on Your Grave), shot in 1988 and curiously released in 1993 to unanswered questions. She resumed acting last year, appearing in three off-radar thrillers.

In a performance Kirk Lazarus might have some thoughts on, Richard Pace plays morally and mentally challenged delivery boy Matthew Lucas, who is unwisely picked to wrap up with the gang rape session with a murder. And he never acted again. An ordinary handgun is too unimaginative a weapon for Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) to use to exact revenge on her rape gang ringleader.

The controversy that has surrounded I Spit on Your Grave from its start has granted it far more exposure than many a low-budget, self-distributed thriller. Just last September, it made TIME magazine's list of "Top 10 Ridiculously Violent Movies." That is just one of many nods that the notorious film has received over the years, with IMDb's long (and perhaps overly generous) movie connections section including mentions in Scream and on "The Simpsons." It's unclear how much, if at all, sincere appreciation factors into the clamor that surrounds the film. Clearly, Zarchi's movie has its supporters, but not very many have chosen to give it unequivocal high praise. It seems that most of the acclaim focuses on the power of frankly and unflinchingly depicting sexual violence and the implications that has for its characters and our reactions to this rape-revenge nightmare-fantasy.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978): Unrated Director's Cut DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 8, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.97
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($24.97 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

I Spit on Your Grave was made for an estimated $80,000, a small amount in practically any film era. That combined with the passage of over 30 years should lower your picture quality expectations. That this is an Anchor Bay DVD, however, means you shouldn't lower them too much. Odds are, even unreasonable demands for this movie will be met by this impressive 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. I've seen a few low-budget '70s movies on DVD that don't look very nice; by comparison, this transfer is a tall achievement. The clean, sharp, and vibrant video is doubtlessly superior to any prior incarnation of the film. This is a movie from which you're more likely to turn away from than marvel at. And yet, the sunny water (the Housatonic River) and sketchy wilderness in Connecticut where this was shot assume greater power than they would have any reason to. Unusually close or spectacularly large viewing will emphasize the technical shortcomings, but most should be pleased if not quite blown away by the video, which must best Elite Entertainment's work from early last decade.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also somewhat of a revelation. The natural atmosphere is delivered with surprising clarity in some early scenes, as birds chirp around you. The effectiveness does serve to underscore the subpar, barely audible nature that some of the dialogue is saddled with. The track is hollow in places and thin in others, in both cases unquestionably limited by the quality of the original recordings. For the most part, fans should welcome the new life this remix breathes into this film, certain shortcomings linger and may even seem worse by comparison. It's worth noting that audio may be one area where Anchor Bay's DVD pales next to Elite Entertainment's 2002 "Millennium Edition." I'm less concerned by the lack of a DTS option (which the industry long gave up on for standard DVD) than the lack of a monaural version truer to the original cut. Passersby might get the wrong idea hearing the unscored rape screams clearly coming from inside viewers' homes.

Having remained quiet for years, writer/director Meir Zarchi gives his side of the story behind his controversial film in a 2002 audio commentary and this new interview. One of the shortest and least significant bonus features, the Alternate Main Title shows us how "I Spit on Your Grave" identified itself to its first audiences.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The hearty supply of primarily archival bonus features begins with two solo audio commentaries, carried over from Elite's 2002 DVD and easily missed on the Set Up menu.

The first is by writer/director Meir Zarchi, a character as bold as the film he made. Having let the movie speak for itself for years, he opens with contrary, hyperbolic remarks from critic reviews and viewer letters.
He proceeds to talk about the movie with a thick accent and a fairly level head, covering a lot of ground, from specific production details to some of the criticisms leveled against the movie over the years. His story about the incident that inspired the film is particularly fascinating.

The second commentary is by author/historian and B-movie authority Joe Bob Briggs, who supplies an amusing tone that's almost like "Mystery Science Theater 3000" without the robots. Though lighthearted, he is full of real information, which he shares with in a way that relates to onscreen action. It makes for an entertaining, sarcastic, critical, close and substantive reading of the film, a service any movie would benefit from. He also strongly defends the movie as a feminist film against some of the criticisms, taking to task some specific Siskel and Ebert remarks.

The one all-new bonus feature, "The Values of Vengeance: Meir Zarchi Remembers I Spit on Your Grave" (28:56), catches up with the film's writer/director. He recalls the experience in detail, covering casting, the lack of music, the ratings battle and cuts, the movie's titles, distribution woes, and the remake (on which he was a producer). There is a little overlap with the commentary, but not much. This would have benefitted from the cast's involvement, but it's a pretty solid one-man retrospective as is, erratic volume levels notwithstanding.

An "Alternate Main Title" (0:15) is as simple and short as it sounds. It shows us the film's existing title shot with the credit instead reading Day of the Woman as it once did.

While movie trailers have always made bold claims, few have vowed to irreversibly change half the population as this Spanish preview for "I Spit on Your Grave" does. This artsy Italian poster for the movie called "Non Violentate Jennifer" bears little resemblance to anything from "I Spit on Your Grave." The DVD's main menu montage proudly Stan and Andy's awesome boat, great ride!

Four trailers promoting the movie are preserved, all of them showing enough to require a "redband" card today. Two identified as Day of the Woman (2:40, 3:23) use the same footage, the latter a rough-looking one with Spanish subtitles and a bombastic opening claim.
The other two (2:54, 2:58) say I Spit on Your Grave repeatedly and miscount the number of targets (as the poster does). The latter actually opens with presumably the early-'80s equivalent of a redband screen.

The vintage marketing continues with three TV spots: one from 1978 calls the film Day of the Woman; the other two from 1980, I Spit on Your Grave; and all three run about thirty seconds each. There are also three similar 30-second radio spots, all using the more polite title.

A Poster & Still Gallery holds 14 color behind-the-scenes crew-centric photos and 5 posters and video covers from around the globe.

A few text-based extras are dropped from Elite's DVD: review excerpts and cast & director filmographies.

The disc opens with trailers for the 2010 I Spit on Your Grave remake, Frozen, and Altitude.

The animated main menu plays a harmonica-fueled montage under the film's title with blood splatters serving as your cursor. The other screens are silent and static.

Mission accomplished? Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) motor boats away at the end of the controversial 1978 cult classic "I Spit on Your Grave."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I Spit on Your Grave is pretty outrageous stuff and often difficult to watch. While I don't see as much value in it as some have, I also didn't find it as mindless and meritless as vocal detractors like Roger Ebert have. Sure it is trashy, exploitative, and manipulative, but worse thrillers have been made on far bigger budgets. Having only this to go on, I would guess that Anchor Bay's presentable, semi-packed DVD beats the others that have come before it, although some fans might lament the lack of mono and/or DTS soundtracks.

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The Shining Misery Cujo The Disappearance of Alice Creed Vacancy Exterminators Jennifer's Body Winter's Bone

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Reviewed February 9, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1978 Cinemagic Pictures and 2011 Anchor Bay Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.