Does Meir Zarchi’s endlessly controversial “feminist” revenge movie still make for tough viewing?
Who made it?: Meir Zarchi (Writer/Director/Producer), Joseph Zbeda (Co-Producer), Cinemagic Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleeman, Alexis Magnotti.
Tagline: “This woman has just chopped, crippled and mutilated four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!”
IMDb rating: 5.3/10.
The above tagline for I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps the most succinct and to-the-point in motion picture history, distilling the allure of exploitation cinema into a mere poster quote. Meir Zarchi’s 1978 “classic” has a lot of detractors, myself included, but it is still unforgettable viewing. The litmus test to which all other so-called “rape-revenge” films are measured, Zarchi’s first of only two directorial efforts is a searing, uncomfortable brew that still beats you over the head nearly forty years later. Relentlessly sleazy, the film’s plot is one that has divided critics and more discerning viewers. Is it a flimsy excuse for bloodshed, or does it have something more meaningful to say?
It tells the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a New Yorker who leaves the Big Apple and ventures into the countryside to write her first novel. Naturally, things don’t go to plan and the gorgeous author is harassed by a group of standard-issue rednecks – tough guy Johnny (Eron Tabor), the mentally-challenged Matthew (Richard Pace), and their sadistic pals Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleeman). The proceedings soon turn sour. Jennifer is attacked and raped several times. Presumed dead by the group, the battered and bloody Jen ceases writing her book, wields vengeance and lives up to that old Klingon proverb about a dish best served cold.
I Spit on Your Grave has faced an uphill battle over the years, competing with Cannibal Holocaust for the title of Most Banned Worldwide. And it isn’t hard to see why. Even a butchered copy of the film has an intensity, yet that intensity is heightened in its uncut form. This one goes all the way. Zarchi and the film’s defenders have always maintained that the movie is an exploration of feminist themes. While there are moments to back this up, Zarchi’s approach couldn’t be any less subtle if he tried. The cold scenes of torture certainly swallow the film’s social agenda. Yet the evidence is there to suggest that this isn’t just another cheap gut-churner. Could it really be about female empowerment? Yes, SJW’s, I’m going there.
The original title was Day of the Woman, perhaps a better moniker than the eventual choice. It certainly makes more sense if you’re going with the empowerment argument. And I stress argument. Every last bloke in the film is despicable, although Zarchi does include a somewhat sympathetic character in Matthew. But even the poor dolt has moments of total self-debasement. Guys in this film exist to die… and die horribly. Making this all the more unpleasant, Zarchi’s screenplay was actually based on a real-life incident. As he relates in a DVD commentary, he came across the aftermath of a rape and the event understandably scarred him. Perhaps I Spit on Your Grave was a catharsis for the director. If so, it explains the level of brutal honesty. The rapists deserve everything that is coming to them, of course, making Day of the Woman the only logical title for the movie. As the tagline intoned, “No jury in America would ever convict her.” By the end, you’re inclined to agree.
That said, I’m not sure how much mileage this Girl Power tract has. The film undercuts this philosophy throughout, constantly reminding you that it was made for largely male audiences in a dingy Times Square cinema. Consider the early scene in which Jennifer arrives at her rented house in the woods. Amazed by the rural beauty, she shows us her own beauties. It would be wise to savour this moment, because it is the only titillation in the movie; the fact that it’s so random only makes it funny in context. Call it the representation of a free-spirited woman if you want to, but I see some crowd-pleasing T&A.
To counter the film’s alleged feminism, Zarchi gives the material a strong streak of vigilantism, which had become the norm following films like Death Wish (1974). Changing the male protagonist was certainly inspired, and having viewed the film again, it’s not difficult to see the blueprint for Uma Thurman’s “roaring rampage of revenge” in Kill Bill (2003). You could almost say it was on the cusp of badass lady cinema since Ripley made her entrance in Alien the following year. Again, such historical relevance is rendered moot by sheer bad taste. Since the film debuted during America’s golden era of neo-horror, I Spit On Your Grave also follows the basic archetypes of the genre, going for the jugular throughout. If you don’t switch-off forty minutes in, you’re made of strong stuff.
While the social commentary is handled haphazardly, the violence is not. This determined I Spit‘s future as a Video Nasty. The initial rape and those that follow last for an unbearably long time, holding the record for such content at twenty-five excruciating minutes. Just when you think the worst of it is over, a tidal wave of repugnant images flood your way. Zarchi’s filming style is direct and unfussy, and the stillness works. It also took me forever to realise that the film is devoid of music. All we get is some diegetic sounds from a church organ, a store record, and a dreaded harmonica.
Zarchi has a primal understanding of what unsettles the human psyche. The location itself is classic: the great outdoors, where anything can and will happen. I’ve lost count of the “evil country folk” films since Deliverance (1972), and the antagonists that plague Jennifer are now familiar (and well-worn) clichés. That said, they are drawn memorably here as the supporting cast members are perfectly slimy. Tabor in particular is easy to hate, almost hitting the same beats as David Hess in The Last House on the Left (1972), a film that evidently influenced much of the material. Like Last House, I Spit was shot in the placid environs of Connecticut, making you wonder what real estate goes for there.
While this is no performance showcase, Keaton deserves immeasurable respect for delivering such an open, harrowing turn as Jennifer. Her conviction in the more horrific moments is almost too much, producing screams that will live in infamy. Though initially stilted, her transition from victim to aggressor is greatly portrayed. It’s just a shame that her talents weren’t used in a better production. The script is mostly to blame, stretching credibility to untold levels. Jennifer claims her victims in a ridiculously easy fashion, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the dominoes to fall. But the bloody retribution is memorable genre viewing, especially the sequence in which she robs a villain of his manhood. You can’t get any more feminist in a rape-revenge movie than that, I suppose.
I Spit isn’t a terrible flick in the traditional sense. The pacing is languid, the acting is all over the map, and the controversial moments make you question yourself for watching it, but the film is also a competent effort when placed against titles like Last House. It possesses a modicum of cinematic technique. It looks like a movie… just not the kind you’re going to see on MovieMix any time soon.
It took a while for I Spit to claim an audience. After submitting the film to the MPAA several times, Zarchi was forced to make cuts to ensure theatrical exhibition. The ratings board wanted the violence toned down considerably, although they never specified which sequences to trim. After removing all trace of a vicious anal rape, Zarchi finally had a classification. Adding insult to injury, he was unable to find a distributor willing to release it. He eventually handled it himself, touring Day of the Woman around the rural drive-ins of America. It didn’t even recoup its meagre advertising budget.
Luckily (or unluckily) for Zarchi, the film was snapped up in 1980 by the Jerry Gross Organization. They gave it a wide release with the option to change the title. Thus, I Spit on Your Grave was born. The new tabloid-baiting name gave the film instant notoriety, and it blossomed into a commercial hit. This ultimately did more harm than good, with many attacking the picture outright (including eminent critic Roger Ebert who developed an obsessive hatred for the film). Many theatres stopped showing it after the outcry started, and like many an exploitation filmmaker before him, Zarchi became an untrustworthy sicko in the eyes of producers. His sophomore effort, action/drama/horror hybrid Don’t Mess With My Sister! (1985), would be his last.
As the years tick by, I still don’t know where to stand on this one. It’s a bitter pill you’re probably better off not taking. Like the best exploitation flicks, it is powered by reputation, but sometimes the reputation turns out to be true. One can’t deny the effectiveness of I Spit on Your Grave, which commits 110% to its hardcore roots, making it difficult to denounce and tricky to praise. The jury is still out and I fear it always will be…
He had it coming.
- Camille Keaton is Buster Keaton’s great-niece.
- Alternative titles included “I Hate Your Guts” and “The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill.”
- British feminist Julie Bindel attacked the film when it was first released in the UK. She later recanted, stating that it was “a feminist film” and very important.
- Keaton won a Best Actress award at the 1978 Catalonian International Film Festival in Spain.
- The actors who played the rapists never made another movie. Talk about a career killer.
- Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) was shot at the same location.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, the Drive-In theatre is playing I Spit on Your Grave, as well as I Thumb Through Your Magazines.
- The film was followed by an unofficial sequel, Savage Vengeance (1993), in which Keaton reprised the role of Jennifer Hills. It has a staggeringly low rating of 1.8/10 on IMDb.
There is some speculation that the model used in the iconic poster shot seen from the rear, clutching a knife, was Demi Moore.
- To date the film has never been shown on television.