The bright lights of New York have inspired many artists, but Jennifer Hills (Keaton) leaves her native city, choosing a cabin in the woods as the perfect place to write her first novel. Her arrival in a small, quiet locale does not go unnoticed, and the tranquility she seeks is soon shattered when four men subject her to a series of brutal rapes. Driven by a burning desire for revenge, Jennifer decides to mete out her own brand of savage justice.
Back in the mists of time, I Spit on your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) encountered unbelievable amounts of hostility as the likes of Siskel and Ebert led an army of critics bent on engineering the destruction of the film and its director. In the UK, Day of the Woman (Zarchi's preferred title and, from this point onwards, my own) was consigned to the infamous 'Video Nasties' list, and only became legally available here again in 2002, shorn of more than seven minutes of footage. Easily the most misunderstood film on this censorious slate, Day of the Woman has been ripe for re-apraisal for a good 20 years and Elite Entertainment's Millennium DVD is the perfect vehicle to add a lot more grist to the mill of Zarchi, his film and those of us who hail it a classic.
On-screen sexual violence can be criticised on a number of levels and Day of the Woman went head-to-head with all of them, slowly converting many who opted to make up his/her own mind, rather than accept the blinkered prejudice of others. The bottom line is that rape should not be an entertaining spectator sport: any depiction should make you sick to your stomach, and the gruelling scene in Day of the Woman (lasting over 20 long minutes) certainly has this effect. It cannot be seen as either titilating nor as a vehicle to prompt men to go out and violate women. It's dirty, bloody, not in the least erotic and borders on unwatchable, forcing the viewer to share this degrading experience. I guess we have to look at both sides of the coin here, so let's begin by examining some of the theories held by those who cast a shadow over Keaton's character, and blithely ignored her performance.
When Hills arrives at her summer retreat, she's immediately eyeballed by gas pump attendant Johnny (Tabor) who takes a long look at her shapely legs, while his two hangers-on, Andy and Stanley ( Kleemann and Nichols) amuse themselves with childlike games. So, while Jennifer isn't exactly advertising her body, there's enough on display to give Johnny a few ideas. Next up is Mathew (Pace); a retarded delivery boy who drops by with some groceries and encounters Jennifer in provocative attire. When Mathew cycles back to his friends with a glowing, if slightly exagerated report, the gang swiftly decide this aspiring author will be Mathew's first fuck. By this time, Andy and Stanley, having caught sight of Hills' bikini-clad body, are also up for some action. The rest, as they say, is history, with Jennifer turning into a seductive murderess. In the second half of this film, Keaton is asked to completely transform her character, and does this brilliantly. She's now a femme fatale in the truest sense of the term; simply oozing sex appeal, and using her body and those remarkable eyes to trap them and kill them. First Mathew, who finally loses his virginity, only to be denied an orgasm by Hills' carefully constructed mantrap: if we believe that oft-repeated theory that death-by-hanging results in an orgasm, then perhaps Mathew did come during his last few seconds on earth - something Jennifer would not allow during their coupling.
Next on the list is Johnny: Mr. Married-with-children, who bleeds to death in a locked bathroom while Jennifer calmly listens to some opera on her hifi. Then, it's on with the bikini again for a double-header finale on the Hoosatonic river. Goodbye Andy and Stanley. Throughout the second half, Jennifer does enough to suggest she's a sexually active woman and well versed in the art of seduction. Indeed, her words and actions during the opening minutes may well have been intended as a signal that she was available, though certainly not inviting the gang savagery she later experiences. Another possibility is she's done this sort of thing before; giving guys the come-on, before literally moving in for the kill: a risky business, but one that can bring its own rewards for those investing in the sex-and-death kick.
Of course, the most common theory - and the one a good many of us subscribe to - is that Jennifer Hills is simply a woman who is completely at ease with her own body, and totally unaware of her power over men; particularly in a place where a pretty woman is rare as snow in July. Yes, she's naive, but merely conducts herself the way all women should be allowed to. Perhaps she was a bit too wrapped up in those magazine stories (the line, "I have many boyfriends" could well have come from one of her literary competitors) and became further embroiled by lifting her subsequent 'Angel of Vengeance' persona from a story or novel that had previously struck a chord (or hit a nerve).
Elite's Millennium DVD gives us further food for thought with the inclusion of two commentary tracks. Director Meir Zarchi has maintained a deafening silence concerning his thoughts on this film (save for one interview in 1984), but considered the time was right to bare his soul. The result is a fascinating account of the making of this film, and the many obstacles that littered its path; before, during and after. We learn how Meir was forced to make extensive cuts in order to avoid the dreaded 'X' rating; why Keaton threw a fit during one particular scene; Zarchi's postive reaction to his critics, and his painstaking audition process which introduced him to his leading lady, who was destined to become his wife. The real highlight of this commentary - and the reason why EVERY critic of this film should listen - is the real-life horror story that motivated Zarchi to make this film. It's a supremely upsetting account of the day Zarchi, his daughter, and his friend Alex Pfau encountered a badly beaten woman who had just been raped by two men. It's almost as hard to listen to as the film is to watch, and Zarchi is obviously moved by the telling; particularly when he reads out a letter of thanks from the girls parents who were grateful for all he did to help. Just listen to this, and then tell me the director is a 3rd-rate hack with a perverted agenda!
The second track sees cult movie guru Joe Bob Briggs take the microphone, delivering a lively, humourous talk that's littered with some very astute observations. While Joe Bob does point out when and where events get a little hard to swallow, he's clearly a supporter of this film and his interpretation certainly enriched my viewing experience.
Elite's presentation of Day of the Woman also reaches heights of excellence: it's great to see this film afforded the THX treatment. For horror movies, this mark of respect began with Elite's Night of the Living Dead laserdisc, and Zarchi's classic certainly benefits. Picture quality is remarkably sharp, providing a fitting showcase for Yuri Haviv's terrific photography. Purists will appreciate the presence of the original mono track amongst the surround options, although one of this films many strengths is that it has no music score, save for a lonely harmonica and an excerpt from an opera which Jennifer plays as Johnny loudly laments the loss of his penis from a locked upstairs room. "Sola Perduta Abandonatto" - from Giacomo Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" - concerns a woman who is imprisoned after her affair with a married man. She escapes, hoping to cross the desert to British territory and is abandoned by her lover. He eventually returns to find her dying, after her search for water proves futile. Although Zarchi doesn't mention this opera, I'm convinced it ties in with his film: Jennifer effectively abandons each of the four men, whose deaths are all connected with water. It's an inspired choice of music in a film that optimises a 'silent score', making the rape and subsequent slaughter even harder to witness.
So, what of the final image of Jennifer heading downstream with that strange look on her face? I think she may well have found a new career. Perhaps if Zarchi and Keaton ever resume their professional relationship, we may one day see Day of the Woman II , with a female 'Travis Bickle' returning to New York for a one-woman clean-up operation. In many ways, I hope not. Day of the Woman is truly a one-off and should remain that way.
Did Zarchi go too far? I think the answer has to be 'yes', but sometimes we need films that go too far. Films that remind us that there is a harsh, ugly world outside the soft, sanitised Hollywood product that regularly clogs up our screens. Great film, great disc.
Aka: Day of the Woman
[This film has now been re-released in the Box of the Banned set along with 5 other video nasties of the time - Ed]