In 1978 Meir Zarchi released I Spit On Your Grave another in the line of rape-revenge films. A film that would have never been made without Last House on the Left, and Deliverance, but this time they centered on the rape and the revenge without any social context interweaved into the plot. The tagline for I Spit On Your Grave was: This woman has just chopped, crippled and mutilated four men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her! The second title for the film read: Day of the Woman. This film shows the strength within womankind to stand up for themselves when they are mistreated. The main problem with I Spit On Your Grave as being a feminist piece is that Zarchi draws out the rape scene for way too long. The four men each get a separate chance to take advantage of the woman, and each time they let her go before they catch her again. From the moment the rapists pull the victim’s boat onto shore and try to grab her the sequence lasts for twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds. The longest, continuous onscreen rape within film history. I guess the film needs the intensity of the rape to go on for so long, just so we thirst the death of these men. Zarchi has been criticized for showing his lingering shots of the aftermath; he tells the film through the eyes of the victimized. Every movement is shown after the woman is raped, just like every second is shown when she kills the four of them. In the commentary that Meir Zarchi does for the film he quotes some of the criticisms he’s received: “Those who enjoyed watching the rape scenes are potential rapists, those who enjoyed the revenge scenes must be sadists, and if you think it’s a cult classic you should be locked up.” I Spit On Your Grave was even more controversial than Deliverance and Last House On The Left, two of the earlier rape-revenge films. Zarchi hated to do interviews about the film, so no one knew how to contextually place the violence, since no one knew what gender he was. Finally in the commentary he tells us the story that influenced the making of the film.
The following is a paraphrased version of the story he tells us on the commentary. In 1974 Zarchi was living in New York City with his wife and two children, it was a rainy day and his friend Alex came by to see if Meir wanted to go jogging in the park. Meir said yes and his eight-year-old daughter came along. They were going to Goosepond Park, normally filled with families having fun. This afternoon the park was deserted due to the rainy conditions. All of a sudden Alex asks, “is she naked?” Meir asked him, “what do you mean is she naked, who’s naked?” Alex stopped the car and pointed, “that girl over there.” He pointed and Meir looked over and he saw a young woman eighteen or nineteen years old totally naked emerging from behind a cluster of bushes, she was stumbling toward them like a walking corpse, her flesh stained with blood and mud, she had her eyes opened wide staring into space, numb with shock. Meir, Alex, and Meir’s daughter sat frozen. Then they leaped from the car and ran toward the girl. She collapsed in Meir’s arms. Meir asked, “what happened?” She tried to reply, but her jaw was broken, he heard her say, “they beat me and raped me.” Meir and Alex tried to figure out the best coarse of action, either go to the police station or go to the hospital. They decided to take her to the police so they could get a description and find these two men that did this to her. They figured the police would go to the scene of the crime and maybe the attackers would still be in the neighborhood, and then the police would call an ambulance. When they got to the station the police saw her as just another victim, the cop on duty sighed when he had to pull out a form. He began to ask her a series of questions, and when he couldn’t understand the words coming out of the young woman’s mouth he began to get frustrated. At this point, Meir realized that the rape wasn’t over, it was continuing at the police station. Meir and Alex felt terrible about taking her to the cops first and not the hospital. The cop asked her name, then asked for her to spell it, he couldn’t understand what she was saying because of her broken jaw. So he asked again without any care in his voice. Then he said, “tell me miss, what was a girl like you doing in the park on a rainy day like this?” As if she brought this attack on herself. Meir was angry at the officer he said, “Hey sir, officer, whatever the fuck your name is, stop your dumb questions and call an ambulance!” The cop finally got the message and she was taken to the hospital.
Meir saw, up close and personal, the aftermath of the rape and how no one sought justice for the crimes committed on the young lady. This became his idea, to show a film where a strong woman falls victim to a group of men and how because of the strength within us all, is able to destroy the men who took away her inner-freedom. I Spit On Your Grave lacks the social commentary of Deliverance, which made the city guys learn about their arrogance, or Last House On The Left that shows revenge is pointless and solves nothing. I Spit On Your Grave shows a woman getting raped by four men, then killing each one of them in the most painful ways possible. There is a latent context throughout that speaks highly of feminism, especially how powerful Jennifer the lead character played by Camille Keaton is. She will stop at nothing to make sure the four men pay for what they did to her, almost an anthem for women who have been victimized. Even though the events in the film are fictional, they resonate inside each of us. Men can see how depraved their gender can be and women can realize they don’t have to put up with these types of men. There are different criticisms this film has received about the way it depicts women, some critics say that Jennifer shows her body to much and that leads to her troubles. Many people will say that Jennifer flaunts her sexuality throughout the beginning of the film, almost to the point that the male gaze goes crazy seeing a ‘nymph’ in the woods type. Jennifer is free though, why shouldn’t we all be able to wear what we want to? She may reveal her legs, or suntan in a hammock in a bikini, does this mean that she deserves to get raped? No individual on this planet deserves that. Muir says, “she is forever garbed in skimpy clothes, and is very much a physical, sensual presence in the film. In the sequences that have nothing to do with sex, Jennifer’s nude, shapely legs are on display, or her nipples are plainly visible. By making her an object of the audience’s lust, I Spit On Your Grave seems to cast some of the blame for the rape in Jennifer’s direction. Boys will be boys, after all, and what could she expect to happen after parading around this little town half-naked (542, Horror Films Of The 1970’s)” Boys will not be boys, and she doesn’t parade her sexuality around. Jennifer is a game to the rapists, she is new in town and Mathew likes her. The rapists want to see Mathew (Richard Pace) get laid, so they go after her. The words echo off, “she’s a wild one,” as to say they have done this before. They are despicable, and speaking from a man’s point of view I found Jennifer’s strength her most appealing characteristic. This is what the rapists seen also, they wanted to dominate this powerful city ‘broad’ as they liked to refer to women of her stature. There is nothing sexual about the rape scenes, they are not raping her because of her ‘flaunting clothing,’ they are trying to overpower her. They use violence against her, not sex. These critiques of the film are more disgusting than the events that are portrayed within the film, they are saying that some women, if they choose to wear revealing clothing deserve what they get. As Zarchi pointed out: if you liked the rape your a potential rapist, if you liked the murdering your a sadist; but he didn’t have another category for the people who believed Jennifer deserved what she got.
From the opening shot of the film we have established that Jennifer is a woman who is well off, she lives in an apartment building in New York City and has a doorman whom she tips as she gets in her car and drives off. She doesn’t need men; she is staying alone in a vacation home. She is a woman who is comfortable with her body; after she unpacks she goes to the lake and goes skinny-dipping. This is shown by a long shot, not lingering on her body but the wide lake she is swimming in. The filmmaker says this shot is Jennifer returning to nature’s womb, she enters the lake as she entered life. She orders some groceries from the store and Mathew comes to the door. Mathew is mentally challenged. Through their interaction Jennifer tells him she is a writer for a woman’s journal and she is on vacation to write her first novel. She tells Mathew she is from New York and he replies, New York is an evil place.” Jennifer gives him the money she owes him and says, “here’s money from an evil woman.” Mathew goes back to his ‘friends,’ Johnny, Stanley, and Andy. He tells them about her and how he saw her ‘tits’ through her shirt. The three men know that Mathew is a virgin and decide that Jennifer will be his gift. In the next scene Jennifer is sitting in bed researching for her novel when she hears whistling and hollering from outside. The only moment in the film when Jennifer seems weak is when she goes outside to investigate the noises. There is a close up shot of her and she looks afraid. This shot leads the audience to believe the rape will happen at night. Jennifer walks back inside; she has regained her confidence. The next day she is out on the lake in her canoe, she is relaxing when all of a sudden the roar from a motorboat startles her. She sees Stanley and Andy coming towards her. They circle her like vultures centering in on their prey. The two guys begin to holler like Indians while they tease her. They see her as a game and continue being ‘playful.’ She swings her canoe paddle at them. She is still not afraid as she continues to fight back. They grab the rope from her boat and pull her into shore. They grab for her but she hits them. Jennifer runs away and they chase her through the woods. Finally when she gets into a clearing we get a hint that she might get away, then Johnny jumps out in front of her just like Krug did in Last House On The Left. They strip her and hold her down. They keep telling Mathew to go for it, but he says he can’t, “like this.” Johnny tells Mathew to hold her leg instead. At this point they figure since they have her, someone’s got to do it. Johnny pulls down his pants and rapes her. The scenes don’t center on sex, only the violence of the men’s actions. Johnny must prove his manhood to the others so he rapes her violently. When he is done each of the men are stunned, they are all quiet like Krug and his company were. The men let Jennifer walk out of the meadow.
The film centers not on the men’s reactions but Jennifer’s struggle to walk. She stumbles through the woods until the men catch up to her again. They hold her against a rock and ask Mathew, “you wanna be a man don’t you Mathew?” To these guys rape means you’re a man. They throw Jennifer on a rock and turn her over; Johnny holds her legs while Andy has his way with her. Jennifer’s scream is the most blood-curdling scream ever uttered in film. Andy beats her in the back of the head to stop her from screaming. When Andy is done, the men leave her on the rock. This time the men don’t show any remorse or shock. This is a way of showing the feminist theory that says men become desensitized to this type of violence. They actually enjoy the rape the second time.
When the men are out of the frame, we watch Jennifer motionless on the rock. We start to wonder weather or not she is alive. Then she moves her hands and she falls off the rock. She starts to crawl away, trying to walk. We cut back to the four guys in the motor boat. They pull Jennifer’s canoe into the middle of the lake and let it go, and Johnny throws her bikini into the water. The shot lingers on the canoe and the bikini floating in the water: they’ve taken everything from her. In a long take we watch Jennifer in agonizing pain trying to make it back to her house, she falls and gets back up. Now she is in the living room crawling towards the camera. The camera tilts and shows us she is trying to reach the telephone. When she gets to the phone she picks up the receiver and dials zero. She puts the phone against her ear and when the operator answers a foot knocks the phone to the floor. The men have been inside the house waiting for her. Jennifer screams again. As we are watching we begin to wonder, what else can they do to this woman, kill her? No matter what, Jennifer is determined to stop the men, even after the long walk back to the house she still has enough energy to kick, scream, and bite. The men finally get Mathew to have his way with her, but Mathew cannot orgasm. He becomes impotent when Jennifer looses consciousness. At this point Jennifer has not only been beaten and raped; they belittle her even more by reading her manuscript aloud. The mock everything about her, then rip up the pages. Finally, Jennifer cannot take it anymore and she tries to reason with Stanley. She tells him she is hurt and she’ll do anything. “Total submission, that’s what I like in a woman,” Stanley says. He holds a Champaign bottle in his hands when she tries to talk to him, all of a sudden he shoves it inside her, then straddles her neck. He pulls down his pants and tells her, “suck it bitch.” He slaps her repeatedly. At this point Johnny breaks it up, because even he cannot watch Stanley’s brutality. At this point they leave her in the house and walk back to the boat. Twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds, the longest continuous onscreen rape.
As with most rape-revenge films the point is to make the crime so violent it is only punishable by death. To the four rapists, murder is different than rape, none of them can finish her off, so they force Mathew to go back and do what they can't. Of course, Mathew cannot kill her because of his twisted love for her. He wipes blood on a knife and brings it back to the group. Johnny says, "good boy Mathew," and pats him on the back. The rapists leave and we return to see how Jennifer is. She is no longer in the living room. The camera pans past where her body was laying, we cut to her in the shower crying. The blood and mud are stained to her flesh and not even the water is strong enough to penetrate it. The next few shots are a montage of Jennifer trying to get back to normality. She pastes the pieces of her manuscript back together. Her whole face has changed, Camille Keaton is such a wonderful actress, and she was able to express a woman's loss of herself through only facial expressions. In any other film, there would be an overly dramatic score to tell us what she is going through, or maybe even a monologue. Zarchi uses no music within this film. The film's universe is made more realistic by not including a score. After the montage of healing, Jennifer is shown wearing a black turtleneck, long sleeves and long black pants. She has become only a shadow of her former self. They took away her inner freedom; they took away her femininity. Her canoe floats back to her to remind her of who she used to be. At this point we know what she needs to do, she knows as well.
When Stanley and Andy drive their boat past her home to see why no one has found her body yet, they find Jennifer in a halter-top. She has taken back her femininity. Jennifer goes to a church and the first words she utters since the rape are, "forgive me." She orders groceries so Mathew can deliver them to her. When Mathew hears, "take these items to the house on Park Hill Lane," his heart jumps. He grabs the groceries and a knife, so he can finish the job he started. When he gets there, Jennifer is dressed in a white see through gown. She leads Mathew out into the woods. Mathew keeps saying he hates her, because he has no friends now. He raises the knife, but Jennifer flirts with him. She uses her feminine sexuality against him. "I could have given you a summer to remember for the rest of your life," Jennifer calmly tells him. She takes down his pants and lets him have sex with her. She waits till the moment he orgasms to put a noose around his neck and hang him from a tree. This is the first and last orgasm Mathew will ever have, she takes his virginity at the same time she takes his life.
Johnny is the second victim on her list. She goes to the gas station and through eye contact and body language she expresses how she wants him to come with her. Johnny gets in the car and they drive off. They get to a clearing and Johnny gets out, Jennifer forces him to open her car door and let her out. He must be a gentleman to her, before she'll get out. As he opens the door Jennifer pulls a gun on him. She forces him to get naked and down on his knees. He lists off the reasons why she shouldn't kill him: he has a family, this thing with you any man would have done, she coaxed him into it, a man is just a man, she showed him her legs, she didn't wear a bra, and finally he raped her because she wears a bikini in public. These are the excuses for him raping her and why she shouldn't kill him. At this moment Jennifer gets close to him and says, "come on I'll give you a hot bath." He thinks he's the smartest guy in the world for coming up with such good reasoning. We cut to the bathroom, where both of them are naked. Jennifer is putting her hair up and asking him questions. She asks about his wife, kids, and friends; she makes him give his own eulogy in a sense. Jennifer gets in the tub with him massages his shoulders, when Johnny is completely relaxed she slowly grabs Mathew's knife that she stashed right next to the tub. She cuts off Johnny's penis and blood pops out of the water. Johnny freaks out and keeps repeating, "what have you done to me?" Jennifer locks him in the bathroom and goes into the living room and plays some opera music on her turntable to drown out his screaming. She rocks back in forth in her chair as Johnny continues to scream in the background. Finally the screaming has stopped and we cut to Jennifer burning his clothes and cleaning the blood out of the bathroom. It cuts to a still frame of Johnny's corpse, then cuts to Johnny's wife and kids who are looking for him.
She now only has two men left Stanley and Andy, who drive their boat toward her house. Andy gets out and goes toward the house, while Stanley stays in the boat. Jennifer jumps in the lake and swims to the motor boat she comes out of the water and gets in the boat with him. She pushes Stanley out and takes control of it. Andy comes to the shore and we see that he has an axe with him. Jennifer circles around Stanley in the same fashion as how they circled her. She gets close to the shore and Andy swings the axe but misses. The axe falls into the boat. She circles around a few more times then takes the boat out into the distance and waits. Andy jumps in the water to help Stanley. He grabs him and begins to pull him toward the shore. Jennifer puts the boat in high gear and aims it towards Andy. Andy lets go of Stanley and tries to get to the shore. At this moment Jennifer raises the axe to the sky and starts screaming. She gets close to Andy and swings the axe into his back. Stanley screams, “I don’t wanna die!” Jennifer turns off the boat and Stanley grabs on to the motor. As he pleads for his life he says, “it wasn’t my idea it was Johnny.” Jennifer simply replies with, "suck it bitch!" She turns on the motor and Stanley is cut to pieces. Finally, she rides off into the distance and Zarchi never cuts from her face. There is a small smile of satisfaction before the credits roll.
She kills the men with their own instruments of destruction. She kills Johnny with Mathew's knife, she kills Andy with his own axe, she kills Stanley with his boat, and even Mathew dies because of his orgasm. The length of the revenge, from the moment that Mathew gets hung is twenty-four minutes and twenty-two seconds. One minute shorter than the rape sequence. Jennifer unlike the rapists does not see a difference between rape and murder, to her it is the only way to seek out justice. Throughout the film she never even thinks about calling the police, maybe an ambulance, but never the cops. She knows like Zarchi that they would be of no help, so she gains her strength back and murders the four men. The beginning of the rape and the end of the revenge are the same, Jennifer has returned to the water. Stanley uses the boat as the first weapon against her, a very phallic symbol especially when it shows how the boat cuts through waves and spreads the water open. When Stanley and Andy are coming toward her Zarchi uses a shot from between Stanley's legs as they grab the rope of the canoe and pull it behind them. The camera becomes Stanley's penis and we're aimed toward Jennifer, already knowing her impending doom. In the end, Jennifer aims their own phallic symbol against them and destroys her attackers. There is no poetic justice, but true justice is poetic.
This film is still banned in Australia. It used to be a crime punishable by the law for owning a copy in your home in the United Kingdom. In New Zealand a teacher was fired for talking about the film to his class. Meir Zarchi says, "the more it is attacked the more powerful and controversial it becomes, it never stops haunting them [censors, film boards, and critics]. All in all these critics have been the movies greatest promoters and may they forever continue to hate it." In the commentary Zarchi also says that the critics want to denounce and condemn it because it makes them feel sick, he says, "what did they expect rape to be, enjoyable to watch, maybe entertaining, this movie was not made in Hollywood."