This Rape-Revenge Horror Film Is Still Being Discussed 40 Years Later
Siskel and Ebert called 'I Spit on Your Grave' the worst movie of 1980, but Meir Zarchi’s infamous film isn't going away anytime soon.
Before it was repackaged in 1980 as I Spit on Your Grave, Meir Zarchi’s infamous 1978 film was originally titled Day of the Woman. Rife with gore, nudity, and a prolonged depiction of sexual violence that monopolizes some 30 minutes of 108-minute runtime, the rape-revenge horror film was met with unanimous derision upon its re-release: Siskel and Ebert dubbed it the “worst film” of the year; it was censored in the UK, becoming a poster-child for the infamous “Video Nasties” list of banned films; and feminist groups, in the wake of the record-breaking marches for the Equal Rights Amendment and Take Back the Night, protested the film outside of movie theaters.
Over the years, I Spit on Your Grave has been subject to a number of reinterpretations. In 2007, critic Michael Kaminski argued his case in the article, “Is I Spit on Your Grave Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?” In 2011, British radical feminist Julie Bindel, who picketed the film when it came out, took to the Guardian with her essay, “I was wrong about I Spit on Your Grave.” What’s inarguable is how uniquely pertinent the film is to the present moment: #MeToo has created a massive shift towards hearing victims of rape and sexual intimidation and vilifying the perpetrators, and justice is finally beginning to seem within reach. What’s more, 40 years after Day of the Woman’s debut, this year Zarchi returns to the story of Manhattan-based writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) and her revenge on the four men who rape her and leave her for dead in the woods outside of a rural cabin. I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà Vu, which is shot but has yet to be picked up for distribution, reunites Keaton with Zarchi—the two were married in 1979, and divorced in 1982—for the first Zarchi-helmed sequel since the original.
At the end of March, David Maguire debuted his deep dive into the making and mythos of I Spit on Your Grave via Columbia University’s Wallflower Press imprint. In the book, the UK-based writer and festival programmer delves deeply into the film’s production, storied past, and the ongoing debates surrounding it. I called Maguire to talk about what makes I Spit on Your Grave a pinnacle of the rape-revenge genre, and why it's still being talked about today.
VICE: Outside of the groundbreakingly negative feedback I Spit on Your Grave (ISOYG) received, what were some of the ways it was a pioneering film?
David Maguire: ISOYG addresses a problem that many rape-revenge films simply fail to grasp, or choose not to; i.e., the inability to truly show the horrific suffering that results from rape and sexual violence. Having us identify with Jennifer while she is raped is crucial to Meir Zarchi’s pro-feminist agenda. While Keaton is an attractive woman, it is difficult to interpret the film as salacious. Zarchi initially distances the viewer from the attacks by using master shots to show the four men pinning her down while she is hidden in the grass.
Subverting the usual cinematic technique of close-ups of the terrified victim staring up at the camera—making the viewer complicit in the attack—Zarchi instead includes close-ups of the rapists, forcing the viewer into Jennifer’s or the victim’s shoes. Zarchi also deliberately rejects the use of non-diegetic music in the film which gives it an almost documentary-realism feel, heightening the intensity of scenes such as Jennifer’s protracted rape.
It can also be argued that the film unambiguously repudiates many common myths surrounding male sexual violence, i.e., that women enjoy rape, that no means yes, that women encourage assault by their provocative clothes or behavior, that most rapes are committed by strangers, and that such attacks are motivated by men’s uncontrollable sexual urges. Rape-revenge films had never really explored such aspects before, and what’s interesting is that Zarchi doesn’t offer his attackers any excuses for their actions; our sympathy throughout lies with Jennifer. And her revenge exposes them for the puny, women-hating, pathetic men that they are.
You mentioned the pro-feminist message Zarchi had in mind while making the film. What can you tell us about his intent?
Although ISOYG was released in 1978, Jennifer Hills effectively first staggered into Meir Zarchi’s life in 1974, when he discovered a naked woman, a rape victim, in Goose Pond Park, Jamaica Hills, New York. He took her to a local police station but has said that he was horrified at the treatment she received there, and felt that she was being raped all over again. If this is true, then it does go some way to explaining why Zarchi films his rape sequence as brutally as he does: to hammer home the appalling brutality of the act.
What about Camille Keaton, the actress who played Jennifer? What was her reaction to the film’s content, and what is her opinion of the film today?
I can’t answer regarding what Camille’s reaction to the content was. I did try to interview her but was unsuccessful, although I did get the chance to briefly chat with her last year when she came to the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, UK. During a Q&A, she did say, “I had some issues,” when quizzed about the content of the film. She also said that she proudly embraces the film, because a rape victim had approached her at a fan convention once and told her what a positive difference the film had made in her life.
Talk to me about the problematic ways in which ISOYG represents sexual violence and its female protagonist.
It is easy to understand why many struggle with ISOYG’s almost perverse split between exploitation cinema and documentary realism. The amount of screen time Zarchi devotes to the degradation of his protagonist is what has divided most critics, and is what still makes the sequence difficult to watch today, despite our sensibilities having been eroded by the likes of contemporary horror films and torture porn.
It is a tenuous notion that a woman who has just been so viciously gang-raped would go to such lengths—nudity, seduction—to get her revenge. In this respect, the female empowerment angle is difficult to justify and it is an issue that has dogged other equally controversial films, e.g., Wes Craven argued that he was condemning screen violence in The Last House on the Left, but the audience still finds itself cheering as the despicable degenerates get their just desserts.
Despite these arguments against it, cases have been made that ISOYG is a feminist film, or that it at least has aspects of a feminist message. For example, British feminist Julie Bindel, who picketed the film when it came out, walked back some of her misgivings about it in the 2011 article “I was wrong about I Spit on Your Grave” (The Guardian). In what ways, if at all, do you think ISOYG is a feminist film?
For me, by adopting the woman’s own viewpoint as she is violated, the film clearly marks Jennifer as a victim who merits our sympathy and compassion; in doing so, Zarchi destroyed the then-established argument that the ‘cinematic look’ was intrinsically male. Similarly, Jennifer—like countless other female protagonists of the rape-revenge genre—is not punished at the film’s end.
Despite being condemned as misogynistic upon its release, the film does clearly reflect the same concerns that second-wave feminism exposed regarding male attitudes towards the opposite sex, and their fear of women’s increasing sexuality and freedom. For instance, the yokels’ low opinion of women is evidenced in comments such as, “One day I’m gonna go to New York and fuck all the broads there,” [comments about] Jennifer’s “damn sexy legs,” and her as lying around in a bikini “like bait.” Once she comes into their lives, she cannot escape their constant catcalls and wolf-whistles, a damning critical representation of male attitudes towards beautiful women.
What place do you feel the film occupies in the #MeToo movement?
Jennifer is effectively harassed for the sole reason that she is a young, beautiful, independent, intelligent career woman—and for this “crime” she is subjected to the most appalling degradation and destruction of her psychical and mental self by men who feel threatened by her. In successfully enacting revenge on those of who have wronged her, it is not entirely surprising that the film has such a strong female following, as it allows a woman, on screen, to redress the balance, albeit using violence. While it is correct that ISOYG and the rape-revenge genre have been responsible for putting images of sexual violence and intimidation towards women up on celluloid, they have also conversely provided an opportunity for identification with a fantasy of strong female empowerment.
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