I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) [DVD]
Director : Meir Zarchi
Screenplay : Meir Zarchi
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1978
Stars : Camille Keaton (Jennifer), Gunter Kleeman (Andy), Anthony Nicholls (Stanley), Richard Pace (Matthew)
Part of being an adult is admitting when you’re wrong, which is what I plan to do here. Simply put, my original assessment of Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge film I Spit On Your Grave, which I wrote back in 1997 after viewing the film once, was off the mark. It was one of the earliest reviews I ever wrote, and in my zeal to take stand, I now recognize how much I exaggerated my negative assessment of the film and how little I had truly paid attention to its nuances and details. To be clear, allow me to quote the original opening paragraph:
I Spit On Your Grave is repulsively juvenile, irresponsible filmmaking at its absolute worst. Cloaking itself under the veil of being “anti-rape,” this is really nothing more than an insipid, pointless exploitative revenge-for-rape film geared to do nothing more than shock audiences and insult anyone with intelligence or even the faintest set of morals. There is nothing artistically redeeming about any of it, and it is one of the few films that constitutes a complete and utter waste of time for anyone who chooses to watch it.
At the time I wrote that, I had seen I Spit On Your Grave once and had read virtually nothing about it. I was aware of the crusade launched by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in 1980 to get the film removed from theaters in Chicago, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Since then, I have read quite a bit about the filme, including some truly in-depth and thoughtful analyses of, if not its merit, then at least its complexities. One of the best is Carol Clover’s insightful look at the film within the context of the rape-revenge horror subgenre in her excellent 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. While Clover doesn’t defend the film’s artistry or its message, she does point out the fact that its politics are not that far removed from more “mainstream” films such as Deliverance (1972), Extremities (1986), and The Accused (1988) and that the primary reason I Spit On Your Grave has been so intensely vilified is because it lacks the Hollywood polish and star power of the aforementioned films. It’s too raw for its own good.
Before moving into my new and more thoughtful assessment of I Spit On Your Grave, however, I would like to point out that this is now a whole-sale revision. I still have some significant problems with the film and with writer/director Meir Zarchi’s approach to the material, assuming that he is genuine in professing that it is meant to be an anti-rape film that depicts in harrowing detail the horrors of sexual violence for the purpose of exposing what other movies try to gloss over.
The first problem with I Spit On Your Grave is, of course, the title. It’s been said before that any film with a title that lurid is asking to be viewed as cheap and sensationalistic. Of course, this is not Zarchi’s fault. When he originally distributed the film himself in 1978, it was under his original title Day of the Woman, which emphasizes not only the centrality of the female character, a New York writer named Jennifer (played by Camille Keaton), but also focuses on the film’s second half, in which she takes revenge on a foursome of upstate Connecticut rednecks who gang-raped her four times over the course of one horrible day. When the film was re-released in 1980 by exploitation distributor Jerry Gross, it was retitled for the obvious purpose of gaining notoriety and, therefore, filling theaters. It is not surprising that it was during this theatrical run that Siskel and Ebert waged their war against the film. After all, how could anyone take a film titled I Spit On Your Grave seriously?
Regardless of the title, there is no simple approach to a film like this. It is stark, simpleminded, and direct. Zarchi had never directed a film before (and he only directed one more, 1985’s genuinely awful and boring Don’t Mess With My Sister!), and he approached I Spit On Your Grave with a minimalist aesthetic, eschewing a nondiegetic musical score and any showy camera movements for a simple, almost documentary-like look. The middle section of the film is dominated by a 45-minute rape sequence in which Jennifer is repeatedly attacked by four men, and Zarchi films the encounters with an uneasy mixture of point-of-view shots from both Jennifer and the rapists and strangely detached third-person shots that view the violence from afar. What at first seems like either inept filmmaking or an unwillingness to commit to one perspective or the other is actually a cunning, deeply effective means of depicting the savagery of the incident from all sides, although the dominant point of view is Jennifer’s. Those who claim that this sequence is depicted from the men’s point of view may have watched it, but they haven’t seen it. The sequence is clearly intended to disturb, and the way in which Zarchi’s camera lingers on the aftermath of each assault is not so much salacious as it is honest.
Some have questioned why Zarchi had to depict the rape sequence in such graphic detail and for such a sustained period of time. It does seem that he may have taken it too far, but then, what is too far? When dealing with a subject as difficult as rape, is it more offensive to show all the graphic details in real time or to shortchange the intensity of the incident by cutting away? Zarchi clearly made his decision early on that he was going to show it all, and to his credit he stuck with it. At its ugliest, the rape sequence in I Spit On Your Grave is profoundly shocking—but would you want it to be anything else? In his review of the film, Roger Ebert was appalled at the behavior of the audience with whom he saw the film, and he ended up blaming the film itself. Unfortunately, while this is an understandable human response, it is ultimately a misguided criticism. Zarchi did everything he could to make the rape repulsive and unerotic, and that it was received with hoots and catcalls from a jeering audience says little about the film itself, but much about those who were in the theater on that particular day.
This is not to say that I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t have its problems. While it is not as salacious and offensive as many have made it out to be, it does have its weak moments. A good example is the scene when Jennifer, having driven three hours from New York City to upstate Connecticut, arrives at her summer house by the banks of a river. The first thing she does is strip naked and go for a swim. This has been defended as an example of how Jennifer is at peace with herself and her body, but it comes across as a moment of nudity for nudity’s sake. And, while not terribly exploitative, the fact that this scene is so unnecessary lingers in the back of one’s mind throughout the film, particularly when Jennifer is being assaulted, calling into question the filmmaker’s intentions.
A more pressing problem is the film’s depiction of Matthew (Richard Pace), one of the rapists whose intelligence is low to the point of bordering on mental retardation. He is slow-witted, naïve, and easily swayed, so it difficult to determine exactly what his culpability is in the violence enacted against Jennifer. He helps hold her down on several occasions and, finally at the end, rapes her himself. Yet, the fact that he is clearly not of average intelligence and is little more than a child in a man’s body makes the film’s treatment of him inherently problematic, as he is lumped in with the other three men who are depicted in stark, clear terms as cruel, reprehensible misogynists. Simply put, Zarchi didn’t thoroughly think through the implications of Matthew’s inclusion in this group, but simply ran with the dictates of the genre (all redneck horror films have to have at least one character of subnormal intelligence).
Being a rape-revenge film, the second half of I Spit On Your Grave is dominated by Jennifer’s revenge scenario, as she lures each of her attackers and then kills him. In a particularly disturbing twist, she uses her sexuality to draw them into her traps, which can be read in any number of ways. Those who criticize the film say it is the film’s way of justifying her having been raped, pointing out how Zarchi depicted her as an oversexualized woman to begin with and that she, in essence, “asked for it.” Watching the film a second time, I was overcome with a sense of sadness, as her using sexuality as a weapon came across as a sign of her inner defeat. Yes, she kills her attackers in gruesome, painful ways (the castration in the bathtub being the sickest and, by extension, the most appropriate), and thus achieves her vengeance. But, there is forever the feeling that she is irretrievably damaged by the incident, both the rape and the revenge. A strong, smart, determined woman at the beginning of the film, at the end she has been reduced to a cold, calculating murderess who gets her revenge, but has lost her soul.
|I Spit On Your Grave Millennium Edition DVD|
|Release Date||December 17, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic)|
I Spit On Your Grave was originally shot in 35mm, so it has always looked a cut above the truly schlocky flicks shot on 16mm and blown up for theatrical release during the exploitation heyday of the ’70s. For its second release on DVD, Elite Entertainment has gone back and created a new, THX-certified anamorphic widescreen transfer from a nearly pristine print. The result is a very smooth and finely detailed image that only suffers in the scenes that take place at night, but this is a result of the original lighting and camerawork, not the transfer. Colors look good throughout, with only a slight hint of fading (this could also be a result of the original film stock used). The image is almost completely free of any dust, dirt, or debris, and scratches and other visual artifacts that usually accompany 25-year-old exploitation films are nowhere to be found.
| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
English DTS 5.1 Surround
Leave it up to Elite to give us not only a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround remix, but also a DTS remix. One might assume this is a case of overkill, given that the film doesn’t even have an musical score. However, what it does have is a very finely nuanced soundtrack of natural sounds that work very well with the tone and mood of the film. Birds chirping, wind rustling through the leaves, and other assorted sounds are nicely spaced out in the surround speakers, giving a subtle sense of envelopment that makes the violence even more disturbing (Camille Keaton’s genuinely bloodcurdling screams are also well reproduced—maybe a little too well reproduced).
| Audio commentary by writer/director Meir Zarchi|
While this Millennium Edition of I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t have the same sheer quantity of supplements that some previous Millennium Edition releases have had, the folks at Elite did pull a real coup by getting writer/director Meir Zarchi to record a feature-length, screen-specific audio commentary. Having a director record a commentary for a DVD release is pretty much de rigueur these days, but the fact that Zarchi has only given one—one—interview about I Spit On Your Grave since its initial release (and that was published back in 1984) makes this a real event. Speaking in a slow, quiet, and genteel voice with a heavy accent, Zarchi does not sound like the kind of man who would make a film such as this. Throughout the commentary, he is candid, insightful, and generally fascinating to listen to (he definitely has a flair for the dramatic). He addresses the criticisms leveled at the film and explains why he did what he did. He also tells a lengthy story about his helping a rape victim in New York City, an incident that inspired the film and gives it a new and intriguing autobiographical context.
Audio commentary by cult film guru Joe Bob Briggs
THX OptiMode Test Signals
Copyright ©2002 James Kendrick