First published by EyeforFilm
Our story starts in 1974, when film editor Meir Zarchi witnesses the aftermath of a brutal rape in a park and steps in to help the victim as best he can. Zarchi then decides to write a script as his artistic response to this horrifying experience and four years later, in 1978, his low-budget directorial debut is released under the title Day Of The Woman, with a few sequences cut to get an R rating from the MPAA. Its star Camille Keaton, soon to become Zarchi’s wife, wins the best actress award at Sitges, but otherwise the film goes largely unseen and unnoticed, not least because it is self-distributed in the US with no advertising campaign to back it.
In 1980, the film is picked up by independent grindhouse film distributor Jerry Gross and remarketed as exploitation cinema. With all the missing scenes fully restored, this X-rated version now boasts the lurid new title I Spit On Your Grave (appropriated from a 1959 racial drama, and disliked to this day by Zarchi himself) and a sensational poster showing the slash-marked and scantily-clad rear of a knife-wielding model (rumoured to be a teenaged Demi Moore). That year, in a review for the Chicago Sun Times, respected critic Roger Ebert describes the film variously as “a vile bag of garbage”, “sick, reprehensible and contemptible” and “one of the most depressing experiences of my life”. Of course, such an extremely negative reception served only to enhance the film’s growing status as a cinematic cause célèbre.
Zarchi’s initial flop was fast becoming a sleeper hit, and its new-found notoriety was reflected the following year when I Spit On Your Grave became 1981’s top-selling video release in the US, ahead of Grease and even The Godfather: Part II. The gulf, however, between Zarchi’s original, sort-of feminist intentions for his work and its subsequent reputation (however well- or ill-deserved) as a misogynistic schlockfest will turn out to be instantiated within the film itself, where earnestly challenging materials are made to sit uneasily alongside gruesomely reactionary horror. For in the dualistic contours of the rape-revenge subgenre, Zarchi finds a way to position his characters and viewers alike as both aggressors and victims. The results are neither comfortable nor pretty, but they are certainly confronting – and by the time it is all over, while many (male?) viewers may feel sullied by the experience, they might prefer to clean themselves with a quick shower rather than a long bath.
The plot is pure simplicity. Women’s writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) goes on a retreat from her New York apartment to a rural, riverside cabin in Connecticut where she hopes to pen a novel, but the location’s natural idyll is disrupted by four young local men who, one after the other, rape the outsider in a prolonged assault. Murdered in spirit if not quite in body, Jennifer steels herself to become a merciless angel of vengeance, meting out deadly – and vaguely fitting – punishments on each one of her attackers in turn.
From such basic elements, Zarchi weaves a modern myth, posing difficult questions which he defies viewers to answer for themselves, without spoonfeeding to them any easy solutions of his own. With the exception of a single interview granted in 1984, Zarchi has maintained a complete public silence on I Spit On Your Grave, broken only with the advent of the DVD age. Certainly the film itself offers no overt judgment or moral commentary. It is shot in a plain style akin to realism, typically with the camera at an objective distance from the events that it shoots, and there is, remarkably, no extradiegetic score to tell us how to feel at any given moment. If the camera does not pull away from showing us the details of an extended rape in all its horror, it is equally unflinching in its portrayal of the revenge – and neither is eroticised or glamorised in any way, with both the men and the woman seeming similarly dehumanised by their respective acts of violence.
The film’s final line, “Suck it, bitch,” is delivered by Jennifer to one of her male attackers, marking the completion of these characters’ reversal in gender roles, and the consummation of the film’s merger between rape and revenge – but any apparent symmetry here is complicated by our realisation that Jennifer differs from the four men not just in her sex, but also in her urban provenance, her social class, and her education. So stupid are all these men in their attitudes and actions that Matthew (irksomely overacted by Richard Pace), though mentally disabled, barely stands out for imbecility.
So when we witness the triumph of a wronged woman over her male assailants, we are also seeing a smart, privileged city slicker exulting over dumb, impoverished hillbillies, one of whom is, in the parlance of the day, retarded – which is, at least in retrospect, somewhat less satisfying and more hollow. Even more problematic for anyone seeking to champion Jennifer’s vicious cause is the fact that she never once tries to pursue her tormentors through the police or the law (something which is more justifiable in Steven R Monroe’s recent reimagining, where one of her attackers is, in fact, the local sheriff).
In cinema, perhaps there is nothing quite like a knife to the cock, an axe to the back or a rotor blade to the chest to furnish convenient resolution to otherwise irreconcilable differences, but Zarchi’s film leaves us to face our awkward awareness that life beyond the theatre is not so straightforward. Life is not, after all, like the long quiet river on which Jennifer is last seen travelling alone, but rather a chaos of other people and of endless consequence. So Zarchi entertains us with a horrifying fantasy of crime and punishment whose real horror rests in its distance from reality (not to mention from legal process). After any day (even a ‘day of the woman’) must come night, and then another day – and we may well wonder what awaits our traumatised murderess round the next bend in the stream, and how we should ourselves judge her hyperviolent, extrajudicial (re)actions. It is precisely these dissonant undercurrents that make I Spit On Your Grave a film worth talking about and taking seriously.
I Spit On Your Grave is a hard film to watch. This is not just because of the unapologetic unpleasantness of some of its content (Zarchi, to his immense credit, never tries to aestheticise rape), but also because the film has been subjected to a history of censorship. In the US it has long been available uncut, but has – extraordinarily – never been shown on television. In Australia, where I remember seeing the film uncut on video as a young teen, it is currently banned altogether. Here in the UK it was arguably the most infamous and ill-reputed of the outlawed Video Nasties of the Eighties, and although the version now available on DVD is longer and considerably more coherent than previous cuts, there are still two minutes and 54 seconds missing from the full 25-minute rape sequence, courtesy of the BBFC’s persistent aversion to depictions of sexual violence.
So perhaps it is fitting to end by considering a rarely discussed, indeed seldom even noticed, detail of the film which is, in fact, its most accusatory comment on both seeing and overlooking. Watch carefully in the sequence when Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann) pursue Jennifer through the woods just before she is jumped by Johnny (Eron Tabor) and raped for the first time, and you will see that the pursuers and their hapless quarry are not alone in that primordial forest.
For as the panicked Jennifer screams for help, she clearly runs past another, apparently female figure hiking among the trees. This shadowy character serves as a discomfiting double for the casual voyeur in us all. As a filmmaker, Marchi may be expected to live up to certain ethical standards in which some critics (although not this one) have found him wanting – but in offering us this fleeting glimpse of an eyewitness who fails to intervene or help any further, the director reminds us that viewing, too, comes with certain moral responsibilities.
© Anton Bitel