Is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?
Examining the controversial shocker in a brand new light
(A nearly three year old OWF film article, resurrected for our 31 Days of Horror and also to supplement Adam Rayner’s review of the new Blu-ray transfer and our Ten Questions With Director Meir Zacahri).
1978’s ‘I Spit On Your Grave‘ remains to this day one of the most controversial films ever made, and certainly one of the most hated. Released in the time of the explosion of shocker and exploitation flicks in the late 70’s, the film featured graphic violence and a 45 minute rape scene which is the main focus of the movie.
The film’s plot is basic: a single woman, vacationing in the woods, is attacked and raped by a gang of men, and when she recovers she exacts her revenge on them. It was banned in more countries than it was allowed, including Canada, Australia and Great Britain, and was almost never released on video, being part of the UK’s infamous “Video Nasty” collection in the 1980’s.
Over the years its reputation grew as a sick and depraved film that was boycotted by feminist groups and venomously criticised as encouraging violence against women. Critics unanimously appraised it as being utterly worthless, irredeemable trash, and were it not for the curiosity of movie-goers to see just what this vile, offensive flick actually was about, the film would have been assuredly erased from the history books of cinema.
But…could it be that all of this stems from a skewered perspective of the film? I argue that, indeed, this may very well be the most misunderstood film of all time.
To start to understand how and why this happened, we should first examine the culture and era unto which it was released. The film actually came out in 1978, but it was mostly ignored until a larger distributor picked it up, hearing of the growing controversy already buzzing around the low-budget film. Around 1980 it was re-released, and it is here that its identity was born.
This was the time of the splatter flick, the exploitation flick, the revenge flick. The same period gave us Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombi 2’, a gore-filled low-budget cash-in on ‘Dawn of the Dead’, it gave us ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, a graphic and equally-maligned splatter film about cannibals, it gave us ‘Caligula’, a graphic and also controversial film that mixed the deadly combo of sex and violence, and it gave us other titles such as ‘Cannibal Ferox’, ‘Salo’, and ‘The Beyond’.
Most of these were preceding the development of films such as ‘Last House on the Left’, ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’, films with graphic torture, shocking gore and extreme violence. In the mainstream, the watered-down “revenge flick” was running strong, with films like ‘Death Wish’, ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ (the art house example of the genre).
‘The Lady Snowblood’ series was still popular at the grindhouse, about a young woman’s vigilante revenge, and butt-kicking heroines were all the rage with ‘Cleopatra Jones’ and Pam Grier’s many roles. Thus, taking all of these elements, a highly marketable grindhouse flick, low in budget that might play for a few weeks, make some quick cash and disappear, appeared in the late 70’s called ‘I Spit On Your Grave’.
Billed under other titles such as ‘I Hate Your Guts’ and ‘The Rape of Jennifer Hill’, and playing in double-bills with other shocker and exploitation B-movies (or even C-movies) of the time, it is understandable that it was viewed in the same context as one might look at something like ‘Redneck Zombies’. Its poster showed a voluptuous woman’s buttocks, a bloodied knife grasped in a hand, with a schlocky tagline.
Nor was the audience that was attending much of this film and other films like it very encouraging to its reputation—most of them were there for the shocks, for the violence and the graphic sex. Like ‘Caligula’, it was seen as halfway to porn, but much more vile for the way in which it portrayed and excessively indulged the rape and beating of the heroine. In many ways, that critics revolted in utter disgust is quite predictable.
Roger Ebert was assigned to view the film—disliking most horror films to begin with, he was absolutely appalled at what he saw. “A vile bag of garbage named ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is playing in Chicago theaters this week,” Ebert wrote in his 1980 review. “It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters, such as Plitt’s United Artists. But it is. Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.”
Ebert’s reaction was mainly encouraged by the context in which he saw it, and the audience he was with. Billed as a schlocky exploitation flick about rape and revenge, not only were critics examining it under that pre-text—with theater lobby’s displaying its titillating poster—but audiences were there mainly to enjoy those aspects, and in some ways it was a form of soft-core pornography.
Roger Ebert writes:
“When I saw it at 11:20 a.m. on Monday, the theater contained a larger crowd than usual. It was not just a large crowd, it was a profoundly disturbing one. I do not often attribute motives to audience members, nor do I try to read their minds, but the people who were sitting around me on Monday morning made it easy for me to know what they were thinking. They talked out loud. And if they seriously believed the things they were saying, they were vicarious sex criminals… How did the audience react to [the film]? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud, After the first rape: “That was a good one!” After the second: “That’ll show her!” After the third: “I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.” When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: “Cut him up, sister!” In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.
I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask If she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”
Thus, Ebert’s disgust with the film is easily understood. He concluded what almost everyone else concluded, the only rational conclusion to draw when viewed in the depraved exploitation context with which the film was presented. “This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction,” Ebert concluded. “It lacks even simple craftsmanship. There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money…This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures. Because it is made artlessly. It flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.”
Viewed as one of the more graphic examples of money-making grindhouse exploitation flicks, it was criticised for its glorification of violence, for its dwelling on rape and its supposed encouragement of violence against women.
So how is it that this film could possibly be so misunderstood? The answers become apparent once you divorce the film from its second-life at porno theatres and exploitation double-bills. One of the more profound realisations is that ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ was not its original title. Its original title was reflective of what the film was actually supposed to represent, before eager marketing found a trendy niche to cash in on and changed it, as we shall see. Its original title was ‘Day of the Woman’.
With that in mind, the cheap, exploitative nature of its reputation is undone. Not ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ but ‘Day of the Woman’. What director Meir Zarchi actually had in mind was a film that was responding to his own personal outrage of the violence he encountered first-hand against women, and so he decided to make a film graphically portraying the horrors of such—with an ending that was feminist wish-fulfillment based on his own experience, as the heroine gets revenge on her attackers and makes them pay for their crimes. Viewed in this context, its prolonged scenes of rape and assault are not depraved or ashamed, they are deliberately painful and horrifying to watch, as they should be.
Zarchi wanted to show rape in all its ugliness, to not cut away, but to show all 45 minutes of it, as the heroine becomes increasingly covered in dirt and mud and blood. Roger Ebert was absolutely horrified—and he was supposed to be. The reaction of audiences around him convinced him that he was supposed to enjoy the violence—but he was actually the only sane person in the theater. Identification is clearly with the female protagonist—not her assailants. This is very similar to ‘Deliverance’, which the film indeed owes a debt of gratitude to. Zarchi of course made the film out of personal outrage, and thus it is expressive in its shockingness (though, in some sense I am sure Zarchi also knew that it would commercially draw upon the revenge flick genre).
So, where did the film originate from? What was this personal experience that Zarchi wanted to express to the audience and fill them with the disgust and outrage that he had felt? Zarchi explains on the DVD of the film that it was born from a personal encounter with a rape victim in New York in October 1974. As he and his friend were driving by a park they witnessed a traumatised young girl crawling out, bloodied, her clothes torn off. She had taken a shortcut through the park to meet her boyfriend when she was attacked and raped. Zarchi and his friend took the girl with them—deciding to drive her to the police or hospital, they first concluded that the police might be the better option. This proved not to be the case. The officer they dealt with, whom Zarchi termed “not fit to wear the uniform,” refused to take her to the hospital until she had been questioned—even though her jaw was broken, leaving her unable to talk. Finally, Zarchi insisted she be taken away to the hospital, where she was finally treated.
Shocked and appalled not only by the brutal crime itself, but by how helpless the victim had been rendered by the law enforcement, Zarchi decided to base a film upon this experience. Thus, he wrote and directed ‘Day of the Woman’—after a horrific gang rape, the young heroine does what the girl Zarchi rescued could not: she exacts justice on her attackers. Law enforcement cannot help her, as the officials Zarchi encountered in New York were unable and unwilling to, so Zarchi’s heroine heals her wounds herself and then embarks on a quest of vigilante vengeance, what Zarchi might have seen as the only solution to such injustice. ‘Day of the Woman’ was both personal expression and wish fulfilment, a very personal film and one that ought to be considered an example of feminist cinema in many ways. It is one about real-life female victimisation and, in some twisted sense, about female empowerment.
When the film was first released under its original title in 1978, star Camille Keaton even won a best actress award in the Catalonian International Film Festival in Spain. However, after this quick initial release, it was picked up by big-time distributor Jerry Gross. Seeing the potential for the film to tap into the revenge and exploitation market that was popular at the time, the film was retitled ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ and pushed with a new marketing campaign, advertising it as a cheap shocker. This plan worked, and the film made a quick buck in this new identity. Here the film was widely seen, by Roger Ebert for example, and became incredibly controversial and maligned. Zarchi himself says he dislikes the new title drummed up by marketers, but with the film in the hands of the distributors and no one involved in its making having a chance to speak for the film, its real purpose and origin was unknown until recently, when Zarchi could finally tell his side of the story on the DVD.
Thought to be a sick and perverse expression of male rape fantasy and a cheap exploitation shocker of the 1970’s, the film is actually quite the opposite, misunderstood and viewed in a light which colored its reception by this pre-conception. This new view of the film which I express has begun to be shared by some now that the initial controversy has given way to a more objective look, and in time hopefully re-appraised. Is it a good film when viewed in this new context? Perhaps not; there is not a very significant message at play, rather the film is constructed so as to be a visceral experience of the horror of rape and the outrage expressed by those rendered victims of such crimes. Many will not enjoy or find any purpose to sit through this film, and it certainly plays into the conventions of exploitation films and thus invites its own criticism. Nonetheless, I don’t believe the intentions of the filmmakers were as women-hating as has often been thought. I hope that perhaps a different perspective on it has been offered here, and that at the least it will not be regarded as a sick and hollow film designed for perverts.