Editor's Note: Since we have separate reviews of the Death Proof and Planet Terror DVD releases, the credits information reflects only the fake trailers by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth (Rodriguez's Machete trailer was included on the Planet Terror DVD).
In Grindhouse, maverick directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino team up to teach modern audiences about the long-dead art of the grindhouse exploitation double feature of the 1970s. To recreate the experience, they've provided us with two feature-length films, fake trailers, and cheesy retro intertitles. In many ways, they are very successful in their educational endeavor. Rodriguez's segment, Planet Terror , shows us why these films were their own kind of art. Tarantino's segment, Death Proof , shows us why this art is now dead.
We'll break the experience (and we'll call Grindhouse an experience since it's really a container for the two films rather than a film unto itself) down to its component parts, since there's almost no connection between the individual segments (save a few tell-tale clues that they co-exist in the same universe).
Too often in the world of film criticism, we try to justify a great movie intellectually, dissecting it until we find the seed from which the greatness originally sprung -- and then breaking down that seed until we can't see it anymore without a microscope. Certainly, this is a technique that we use throughout Classic-Horror. It's not a bad thing, necessarily; no well-argued analysis is without merit. That said, Planet Terror would like to give the middle finger to all such attempts at distilling its greatness. Then it would like to give that finger a little twist, just for emphasis.
You cannot make a smart, rational case for Planet Terror. It is not a smart, rational film. However, this doesn't make it a stupid movie, either. Rodriguez is an intelligent man and the sillier an intelligent director attempts to make his movie, the more his intelligence will shine through in all the right places (for an equally awesome example of this, see the early works of Peter Jackson). Like most things of raw, inexplicable beauty, Planet Terror overwhelms the senses and leaves you awestruck without reason. An attempt to graft deeper meaning onto the film would ruin it.
Deep in the heart of Texas, a toxic biochemical is unleashed on the unsuspecting populace of a small town, turning the majority of them into cannibalistic zombies covered in oozing pustules. Those unaffected must make a last stand against hundreds of purulent monstrosities. Luckily, the side of the non-flesheaters includes the mysterious and dangerous El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his ex-girlfriend Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), who has a machine gun where her right leg should be.
Let me tell you what Planet Terror is really about -- cramming every bit of 'holy crap!' that Rodriguez can think of into a 90-minute runtime. Gross zombies and prosthetic legs with unlimited ammo aside, Planet Terror also tosses in gigantic explosions, a hypodermic gun, helicopter-fu, go-go dancing, and the best damned BBQ this side of the Mississippi. It then adds a veritable who's who of B-list actors (Tom Savini, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, and Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw) and a small, uncredited role for one major A-lister (Bruce Willis). All this combines to form a fuel made of pure awesome that powers Planet Terror from its lithe opening credits (yes, lithe) to its high-flying climax. The engine finally peters out during an overlong coda, but by that time, Rodriguez could've appended a short clip of Rose McGowan eating noodles and his film still would've been an outrageous success.
One particularly strong aspect of the script is how quickly Rodriguez manages to create easy-to-relate-to characters while giving us little to no background. Each of the major players comes from a specific mentality or motivation that they then use that to power their way through the storyline. To this effect, Rodriguez uses the tropes of the exploitation film to his favor; anyone who's seen an action movie in the last three dozen years is at least a little familiar with the templates from which his characters come -- the loner with a past, the stripper with a heart of gold, the avuncular redneck. From that basis, he then builds in just the right quirks to make them the living, breathing heroes of his story, and not just a group of walking trigger-pullers.
While Planet Terror certainly embodies the spirit of the grindhouse film, its single major flaw is that there's no way to pretend it actually is one. Rodriguez does make a concentrated effort to authenticate the look of the print by adding scratches, dents, and other bits of wear and tear (even to the point where the sexiest scene in the movie is so "worn down" that the film "breaks" and the movie skips ahead several minutes), but he cannot escape the fact that his movie looks like it was made by a major studio. Utilizing the same techniques that allowed him to digitally create an entire city out of thin air in Sin City, Rodriguez uses computers to create some seriously awesome whiz-bang effects, not least of which is Cherry Darling's prosthetic machine gun leg. Roughly eighty percent of the really amazing effects shots in Planet Terror would never have been possible on a 1970s exploitation budget, and the film frequently plays like what might have come out of the era if money had been no object and Adobe After Effects had been freely available for post-production.
With Planet Terror, Rodriguez effectively melds his unique brand of "everything and the kitchen sink" filmmaking with the horror genre, and does so in a much more cohesive fashion than his last horror outing, From Dusk Till Dawn (a film written by Tarantino that's similarly in the spirit of the great grindhouse horror features). If there's a Planet Terror 2, I'll be first in line.
Where Rodriguez's film works on pure adrenaline, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof chugs along on nothing more than Tarantino's smug self-satisfaction. Some of his pride is well-deserved -- Death Proof contains some of the most amazing car stunts in recent history, all done with practical effects and almost no CGI. For the most part, however, Tarantino's segment is an old dog overly impressed with its own ability to perform old tricks.
In Death Proof , Tarantino attempts to create his own homage to three different genres: the slasher, the car chase action movie, and the women's revenge picture. The problem is that it doesn't really work as any of those things. Death Proof is just another Tarantino movie where characters sit around and banter about minutiae and pop nostalgia. Once they stop bantering, they wander through one or two of the aforementioned genres until Tarantino is done with them.
Most days, "just another Tarantino movie" would be fine by me -- the director has been nothing if not excellent in every film since Reservoir Dogs. The problem in Death Proof is that Tarantino is trying to make a horror/action exploitation film with Tarantino characters. In such an enviroment, his usual dialogue sounds hollow and banal; his characters are defined by their level of rudeness and their willingness to spout profanity, rather than, say, personalities. Characters in "pure" Tarantino films can survive being defined by their 'tudes and foul mouths, since they live in the director's mise-en-scène of cool. In an exploitation film, however, there's a strong desire to "cut to the chase" (an urgency spurred on by Death Proof's editing if not its content) and the very best exploitation cinema features characters defined by their actions (as exemplified in Rodriguez's Planet Terror).
Ostensibly, Death Proof is about misogynistic Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who gets his kicks from killing girls with his 1970 Chevy Nova, which he's reinforced to be 100% death proof (hence the film's title). The film is split into two sections. The first part acts as our introduction to Mike as he stalks a radio DJ and her friends in Austin, Texas. The second part follows a set of movie people (a makeup artist, an actress, and two stunt women) who have the misfortune to run afoul of Stuntman Mike -- until Mike finds that the misfortune is entirely his.
The key to an effective villain is giving him the proper set-up. Tarantino at least appears to understand that this is what made his favorite horror films work, as he makes a few references to Halloween early in the picture (the mysterious car with the unseen driver rolling slowly past the girls, for instance). Alas, Tarantino does not seem to grasp how to make a proper set-up work for him, at least, not on film. If you have a chance to read Tarantino's full screenplay (which is available in book form), do so. There are some passages in there that make Stuntman Mike unnerving and sinister well before he starts killing. Those bits, however, are nowhere to be found in the final product. The Mike that Tarantino shows us is an impotent lout who stuffs his face with nachos, does a passable John Wayne impersonation, and hits on women like a passive-aggressive dweeb. When he shepherds hippie-girl Pam (Rose McGowan in a blonde wig) into his car and tells her that she's "gonna have to get scared immediately," the first question that pops into mind is "why?" Soon after, Stuntman Mike performs one of the more impressive four-in-one kills in cinema history, but it's nearly impossible to actually attach him to the act he is committing. Since Tarantino hasn't shown Mike to be a potential threat, the focus of the scene shifts to the technical spectacle, where it should be on either Mike (who we should be afraid of, but aren't) or his victims (who we should care about, but don't). Mike's not a terrifying powerhouse of misdirected sexual rage -- he's an aging blowhard whose flaccidity doesn't end with his penis.
The effectiveness of the second half of Death Proof is heavily predicated on how unnerving Stuntman Mike is. Since he isn't unnerving at all, the focus again shifts to the impressive technical craftsmanship of the stunts and effects. Since the two car chases that comprise the meat of this half are some seriously slambang action sequences, this shift in focus is not necessarily a bad thing. Although both chases outlast their welcome by a few minutes, Tarantino ends the film at just the right moment, freezing the action right after an incredibly gratifying, if somewhat ridiculous, fistfight.
One thing I will give Tarantino is that of the two features in Grindhouse, his most closely resembles an actual grindhouse movie. He uses CGI sparingly (mostly only to erase wires and harnesses from the stunt people) and most of the effects are done in-camera. When stunt woman Zoë Bell (playing herself) is hanging onto the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger at high speed, she's really hanging onto the hood of the car and the car is really zipping along at 70 miles per hour. Tarantino insisted that everything be as real as possible and for this, I commend him. The car chase sequences never cop out and they feel like they're running at 200 miles per hour. However, while the technology is accurate, the price is not. Tarantino used six 1970 Challengers and eight 1970 Novas in Death Proof; the cost of the cars alone would have blown the entire budget of a grindhouse film several times over.
Unfortunately, the other major aspect of the grindhouse experience that Tarantino emulates is the piece of crap second feature that follows the completely awesome first feature. If this is his intent -- and based on statements he's made in several interviews, it isn't -- then he earns no points for his effort. I can accurately emulate a kick to the groin, but would you want me to? Sadly, with the exception of his impressive stunt work and effects, Death Proof is much like Stuntman Mike -- an impotent throwback that thinks it's more impressive than it really is.
To keep with the spirit of the grindhouse experience, Tarantino and Rodriguez had fellow horror filmmakers Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects , the upcoming Halloween remake), and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) create trailers for fake grindhouse movies. Some of them are brilliant, all go for the humor angle, and all of them are worth at least a little discussion.
Machete (Rodriguez) - Rodriguez himself contributes the first trailer, which plays before Planet Terror. Machete, a former Mexican Federale (Danny Trejo) is hired to assassinate a U.S. Senator, but it's a set-up -- during the job, he's shot and left for dead by his employers. As the gravel-voiced narrator puts it, "they just f**ked with the wrong Mexican." Rodriguez's pastiche of the Charles Bronson revenge flicks of the 1970s is so dead on the money that plans are in the works to actual make the entire film. I say bring it on. Machete works the same kind of magic in a few brief minutes that Planet Terror does in a full hour and a half. It's action-packed fun, full of violence, bladed weaponry of all sizes, and gratuitous nudity.
Werewolf Women of the SS (Zombie) - Apparently, Hitler's plans for world domination included lycanthropic ladies. Who knew? The title evokes a heady whirlwind of naziploitation, horror, and sexploitation. The result is certainly a whirlwind, but it's more of a headache than heady. What could have been a sublimely perfect snapshot of exploitation in all of its glory ends up being a mess of clips that treat the concept as a winking joke. Zombie's trailer is a thorough disappointment, saved only by a full-blooded cameo by a cackling Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu.
Edgar Wright's trailer (Wright) - I'm omitting the title of Wright's contribution because it's basically the punch line for a very funny joke. Wright seems to be doing a pastiche on the "torture house" films of fellow Brit Pete Walker (House of Whipcord). A group of people (including Matthew MacFadyen and Jason Isaacs) enter a house and are immediately beset by maniacs of all shapes and sizes. Shaun of the Dead actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both appear. The narration and featured clips fail to give a strong idea about what the film is really about, which probably makes Wright's contribution the most authentic of the four fake trailers, since British imports in the US frequently suffered that sort of treatment.
Thanksgiving (Roth) - Roth's spoof of an early 1980s slasher reportedly created some issues with the MPAA and suffered some cuts so Grindhouse could secure an 'R' rating. One scene that had to be trimmed -- where a topless girl on a trampoline does the splits onto the killer's waiting knife -- actually becomes the most brutal moment in the piece because Roth cuts away a half-second after the moment of impact (the original cut lingered much longer). Otherwise, Thanksgiving is Roth's famously over-the-top sensibilities running wild -- a boy gets decapitated while his girlfriend gives him head, a grandma is killed and roasted instead of the turkey, and a Thanksgiving parade is ruined when the killer slices off the turkey mascot's head. It's all more than we'd ever be allowed to see in a real trailer, but there's a vein of dark (meat) humor that prevents things from getting too stupid.
Grindhouse offers a lot in the way of fun -- Planet Terror and the majority of the fake trailers are an absolute blast. Were it not for the regrettable but occasionally interesting Tarantino film, it might be perfect. As far as I'm concerned, it still can be perfect. Watch Planet Terror, watch the fake trailers, and skip out before Death Proof. Go home and watch a real grindhouse film instead. I recommend The Candy Snatchers or Blood Freak.
Volk, Kurt, ed. Grindhouse: The Sleaze-Filled Saga of an Exploitation Double Feature. New York, NY: Weinstein Books, 2007. Page 205.