Okay, so I'm going to refer to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's director as Zarchi for the bulk of this review, and his son - the director of this retrospective documentary - as Terry. There you go.
Forty-three years after its initial release, Meir Zarchi's I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (a.k.a. DAY OF THE WOMAN; THE HOUSATONIC REVENGE) remains so controversial that the British Board of Film Classification demanded significant cuts to a Special Edition UK blu-ray release just last year. More than that, it has endured as the most infamous title in the ignoble "rape-revenge" genre, and stands the test of time to this day as a genuinely powerful piece of exploitation cinema.
Over the decades, Zarchi had alternately remained quiet when the film was mentioned, or tried half-heartedly to argue his case for the movie being one with a strong feminist intent. The audio commentary track he recorded in 2004 (available on numerous DVD and blu-ray releases over the years) is earnest enough but, perhaps because it was time-constrained and bound by the need to follow the action occurring on screen, didn't really cover the controversy to any satisfying degree. And so, a lot of the mystique surrounding this troublesome classic has frustratingly remained.
Despite this, the film has amassed an incredible cult following over the ensuing decades, as well as spawning a well-received 2010 remake (which itself enjoyed two follow-ups) and even a much-belated 2019 sequel, the latter of which reunited director Zarchi with his leading lady Camille Keaton.
Plaudits to Zarchi's son Terry, then, for coming up with this definitive look into the film's inception and consequent impact. A true labour of love, Terry spent five years developing this feature-length documentary - acting as writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer and narrator.
Smoothly interspersing clips from the iconic 1978 movie, polished interviews with key players and an array of illuminating behind-the-scenes photographs, Terry has fashioned a constantly engaging, fluid-flowing and slickly-edited expose into the making of a much-debated cult classic.
Terry's narration opens by revealing his own ties to the film - he and his older sister Tammy enjoyed brief roles in it, appearing as the children of chief antagonist Johnny (for the uninitiated, he and three other cronies gang-rape and beat an aspiring author [portrayed by Keaton] while she's enjoying a working vacation in the countryside; she recuperates and later returns to exact bloody revenge upon them). Terry confesses that, at just nine years of age, he was extremely nervous and reluctant to appear in the film ... until his dad bribed him with the promise of $10.00.
Then our host embarks on a near-chronological retelling of the film's genesis. Zarchi and his daughter Tammy Scher share the retelling of an event in January 1974 which kick-started the whole thing. The pair had been jogging with Zarchi's pal Alex Pfau (who ended up doing the sound effects for the film) through the park in Jamaica Hills, New York, when they happened upon a terrified and disorientated naked woman staggering out from the bushes. Upon learning she had been raped, Zarchi and Alex covered her with their coats and placed her in the back of Zarchi's car. He then dropped Tammy off at home and took the woman to the nearest police station - where he was appalled by the cops' unsympathetic handling of the victim and the accusatory questions being levelled at her. At Zarchi's insistence, an ambulance was called to take her to hospital.
It's evident in their faces and voices that the event left an indelible impression on both Zarchi and Tammy - not least of all because the latter would often play in that park alone, and it just as easily could've been her who'd fallen foul of this poor woman's aggressors. The incident haunted Zarchi so much that the aspiring filmmaker - who'd fallen in love with cinema at an early age while growing up in Israel, and following an emotional theatrical viewing of BICYCLE THIEVES had vowed that he would someday direct a film of his own - hatched the notion of writing a screenplay based on this woman's terrible experience and how, knowing the police were not interested at that time in seeking justice for rape victims, the injured party in this case would personally ensure her tormentors paid for their transgressions.
From this point onwards, the documentary divides itself into chapters with pretty self-explanatory titles: "Writing the Screenplay", "The Four Men", "The Rock Rape", "The Bath Tub Scene", "Seeking Distribution" and so on.
The main contributors along the way are Zarchi, Keaton, Eron Tabor (Johnny in the film - and, as it happens, credited as Robert Shetler here ... apparently the name given to him on his birth certificate), Gunter Kleeman (fellow rapist Andy in the movie), production manager/special effects artist William Tasgal, Gary Adelman from US distributors The Jerry Gross Organization, and cinematographer Nouri Haviv.
Terry clearly interviews his subjects but his questions, as well as his visage, remain off-screen. He's almost exclusively behind the camera and is generally only heard in narrative interludes, though he does appear briefly alongside his sister later in the documentary when they both recount their experience working on the film. Elsewhere, there's a familiarity and candidness consistent with each interviewee which shows how at ease they are in front of Terry's gaze. There's also inherent warmth present, with Zarchi referring to his son directly at times ("your mother suggested this ..." etc) .
So, we learn that Zarchi wrote the screenplay over the course of four months, between December 1975 and March 1976, with the working title of THE HOUSATONIC REVENGE (changed shortly afterwards to DAY OF THE WOMAN).
By July 1976, following lots of auditions, Keaton and her rapists had all been cast. All actors were responses to advertisements placed by Zarchi in trade papers such as "Backstage". Keaton admits that her reaction to the script was "wow, this is a great opportunity to show my range of emotions" (...!) and openly states that she was determined to win the role. Tabor, however, laughs as he confesses to almost turning his role down due to it being so far removed from who he is in real life. He ultimately took the role because he knew it would most likely be the only time he'd get to play the lead male in a movie - even if that lead male is one of the most deplorable characters ever created.
And so, shortly afterwards, filming commenced in Kent, Connecticut (the location was chosen after Zarchi had visited a friend there and, remarking upon the tranquillity and isolation of the spot, suddenly had the premise for his screenplay fully formed). Zarchi reveals how the film was almost entirely shot in chronological order over a six-week period. He's honest enough to admit there was a reason behind this: if he'd have left the filming of the rapes until the end of the shoot, his lead actress may have bailed ... leaving him with a whole lot of wasted footage. Assuming the film's final scene was the last thing to be shot (Keaton manning a motor boat, dispensing of her last two violators), it's hardly surprising that the lead actress says this was her favourite day on location ... not only must it have been a breeze compared to what came before, but it would've also signalled the shoot coming to an end!
From the building of the raft used in the film, to mixing with the perfectly accommodating residents of Kent at the local cafe, to how principal photography went, to how friendships were formed on the shoot, to how the special effects were achieved, this documentary swiftly sets out its stall as being the last word on I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's formation.
Elsewhere, Tabor explains how he invented a back-story for his character to help rationalise how he could be capable of such cruelty. This included sourcing his own costume, sabotaged his own boots to affect his gait, began smoking harsh cigarettes to deepen his voice, and so on. Meanwhile Keaton says he was very professional and great to work with, while she describes Richard Pace (who played the mentally disadvantaged character Matthew) as being "kind".
We also learn that the infamous rock rape scene left Kleeman with an injured back for three days afterwards. Unsurprisingly, all of the actors were uncomfortable during the protracted rape sequences. Keaton had a "temper tantrum" (her words) after shooting the rock scene when Zarchi suggested she end the moment by falling off said rock. After smashing up a load of filming and lighting equipment in a nearby van, Keaton returned to the shoot's location and demanded Zarchi strip off and show her how to act the scene ... which he did. She then completed the scene.
Tabor does ensure the viewer that "a lot of joking and having fun" was enjoyed during the film's cruellest moments; so much so that when he saw the final product he was genuinely shocked by how brutal it all looked.
Now, there's a wealth of information reproduced here already. But there's much, much more on offer in GROWING UP. If I divulged it all, there'd be no point in you watching this ... correct?! International distribution deals; the romantic link between Zarchi and Keaton (and Terry's opinion on this); the 1980 signing with The Jerry Gross Organization for US distribution and THAT crucial title change (a retitling that Zarchi still dislikes); the critical backlash; the film's rebirth on VHS; the furore the film caused during the video nasties scare of the 1980s in the UK ... there's so much more to come. Oh, and if you want confirmation as to whether or not that's a young Demi Moore's backside on the iconic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE poster ... well, that answer also lies herein.
Whether you're a fan of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or just a casual observer, you need to see this. It's an excellent, thorough and genuinely affectionate look back on the making of a film that will doubtlessly continue to be discussed and debated over for years to come. All of the contributing guests have fantastic memories of their time on the shoot, resulting in a fascinating attention to detail.
Replete with cool behind-the-scenes stills, home movie footage, warming photographs from Zarchi's youth, and nice archival shots such as pages from the film's original screenplay, GROWING UP is a handsomely mounted and professionally put-together piece that spins its yarn in an unexpectedly engaging and revealing manner. Terry even canvasses the internet later on, to get views from fans and detractors from around the world (a commendably balanced view).
As for Terry's initial question of "are women empowered or exploited by the revenge fantasy?"? There's a convincing argument made here that Zarchi's intentions were sincere. Certainly, all the participants see it as a feminist piece. It's up to the viewer whether they buy that or not. I've never doubted it personally, but there is undeniably a faction of the populace who cheer on the rapists. Interestingly, the film gets discussed a lot in Universities today and so forth, and it's apparent that newer audiences do view it as a feminist piece.
And, yes, the remake is covered too (along with the original players' reactions to it). There's also a lovely reunion between Zarchi and Keaton towards the end.
GROWING UP WITH I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE has been included as an extra on recent blu-ray releases of the original film from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment in the UK and Ronin Flix in the US.
Happily, it's also arrived on Amazon Prime Video as a free stream for subscribers. That's the version I'm reviewing here.
While the documentary kicks off with scratchy, pillar-boxed footage from the film's original theatrical trailer, all the subsequent clips from the film are presented in crisp, sparkling 16x9 high definition. The interview clips are obviously very sharp and vivid, giving this a very polished and professional sheen.
The film is given the 1080p HD treatment on Prime, and it looks great. It's presented in 16x9 widescreen with a clear and clean English stereo soundtrack. At 102 minutes and 16 seconds long, it's fully uncut (although it contains many clips from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, it avoids lingering on the most contentious moments).
Highly recommended. This is one of the best retrospective documentaries of a cult film in recent memory.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Terry Zarchi|