Reviewed by Sam Hatch
It's good to see the Class of '92 still hasn't grown up. 1992 was the year when guerilla filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and walking film encyclopedia Quentin Tarantino took Sundance by storm with their freshman efforts El Mariachi and Reservoir Dogs. You'd think the two would have sized the other up as unhealthy competition and exchanged a few pleasantries before leaving vague dinner plans unfulfilled. Strangely, young Hollywood ambition took a backseat to uber-geek camaraderie, and the two have been nigh inseparable ever since.
They've both generated impressive resumes on their own, but have always found time along the way to collaborate with one another. Four Rooms was the retro-comedy uncle of Grindhouse, and that film saw Tarantino and Rodriguez joined by fellow '92 classmates Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell, each helming a short comic vignette set in the same hotel. The gruesome twosome continued working together, with Tarantino acting in a small role in Rodriguez' Desperado, followed by the crime movie/vampire survival mélange From Dusk Till Dawn. Even Rodriguez' best film to date - Sin City, features a segment directed by Quentin Tarantino.
What's cool about their situation is that they're both independently successful. One never fell into that unenviable position of having to ride on the other's coattails. So now with Rodriguez enjoying a post-Sin City afterglow and Tarantino still reveling in the relative success of his Kill Bill double feature, they both decided to forgo the temptation to further their own personal glories in exchange for working together once again. It should come as no surprise that both gentlemen are raging fans of the same 70s exploitation films, and a project like Grindhouse was a match made in heaven.
The concept boiled over from numerous double-feature screenings Tarantino had been hosting at his home. The two realized that the low-budget two feature experience was now lost to America, and they vowed to make their own cheesy trash pictures and use their clout with Dimension and the Weinstein Company to recreate the thrill of it all. It's a weird means to a strange end, as they had to spend at least 50 million dollars in their effort to clone the experience of watching two mega-cheapies with shoddy production. There's also the question of whether or not anybody else cares as much as they do about these types of films. (In my case, that's a yes!)
Since Quentin's private screenings were often padded with vintage sleaze movie trailers, they also decided to ape that experience by crafting faux trailers for films that don't exist. Combining the trailers, two full-length features and a handful of crappy vintage theater interstitials, the viewer is hit full on with over three hours of craziness. If you like this kind of filth (and why wouldn't you), then you're in for one wild ride!
Rodriguez's feature is the first in line, but before it begins we get a short Rodriguez-directed fake trailer for ‘Machete', starring Danny Trejo as a Mexican federale who gets double crossed by the U.S. Government (in a scenario that almost mirrors the plot of the recent film Shooter). Rodriguez nails the feel on the head, from the title font style to the stilted editing. He also either imitated or hired the ubiquitous voiceover guy who did all of the classic trailers. I'm a huge Trejo fan, so when he's flying through the air on a motorcycle fitted with a gatling gun; I'm digging it the most. Word on the street is that it may actually get filmed as a straight-to-video release. I can't wait.
Planet Terror is the first feature, and was a story Rodriguez originally planned to shoot shortly after helming The Faculty. He correctly assumed that the zombie genre would eventually take off in popularity again, and had hoped to jumpstart the trend himself. Other folks took that crown, but this new project served the perfect excuse to dust off the old story and finally nail down a script. Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a lachrymating go go dancer who can't find her niche in life. While supping at J.T. Hague's (Jeff Fahey) Bone House BBQ saloon, she awkwardly reunites with Freddy Rodriguez' El Wray, a taciturn badass with a gigantic wrecker truck and a mysterious past.
What the two ex-lovers don't know is that a plague of gas-spawned zombies (a la Return of the Living Dead) is about to hit the town with a vengeance. In traditional John Carpenter ‘The Fog' style, the film follows the exploits of other barely connected characters as the epidemic swells. There's Josh Brolin's ‘Doc Block', a hospital physician (and part-time bastard husband) who encounters the first victims and their pus-ridden, oozing wounds. If these scenes don't make you vomit off the bat, a morbidly curious member of Doc's staff is usually in the background looking up real photos of ungodly tumors and the like on the internet. Doc's (soon to be ex) wife Dakota is also on staff, and she excels at manipulating needles (her ‘friends') loaded with sedatives and numbing agents. Her main problem is that she's actually in love with Tammy (Stacey Ferguson of Black Eyed Peas and Lake Havasu landmark fame) and plans to leave her psychotic husband as soon as she can.
On the law-giving side of the street stands J.T.'s Sheriff brother (played by James Cameron favorite Michael Biehn!), who has a particular dislike for El Wray. His two deputies are played by legendary makeup artist Tom Savini and original El Mariachi star Carlos Gallardo. Michael Parks also shows up as Earl McGraw, the same Texas Ranger he's been playing for years in From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill. Bruce Willis (who's worked for Quentin twice already and once for Rodriguez) plays an infected military commander out to purchase some secret government badness from Abby, Naveen Andrew's ill-defined mercenary who carries around a futuristic looking specimen tube filled with his adversaries' severed testes. When the tube later shatters and Abby falls to the ground amidst its contents, another character actually says ‘It looks like I've got you by the balls.'
Not only is the dialogue purposefully cheesy, but the film itself has been digitally ‘aged' to appear as if it's been played in countless theaters already. Rodriguez goes nuts with the effects, and just about every frame is blighted with at least a hair, scratch or basic color degradation. There's also the notorious ‘missing reel', which deftly removes the slow portion of the second act with all of the character work. It's a hilarious gimmick to keep the action moving, and I love how it plays out.
Cherry loses a leg early in the story, and Rose McGowan was forced to endure running around with a cast on through much of the shooting. Rodriguez later removed the leg digitally (anathema for the Grindhouse elite, I know!) and replaced it with a wooden table leg and finally – an automatic machine gun/rocket launcher combo! It's so silly that it works, though God knows how she's supposed to actually operate the thing. The way it plays on screen is that the gun leg does whatever she wants it to without any manual operation. I'll buy it!
Another interesting element to the film is that while QT and Double R are doing their best to emulate the spirit of the 70s, neither film is actually set in that decade. (In Quentin's case it doesn't matter, because I don't think he's even noticed that the 70s ever ended, so even when he shoots in ‘the present', his present is still thirty years ago) Planet Terror's plot involves modern devices such as PDAs, and current day boogieman Osama Bin Laden even gets namedropped a few times.
The surface of the backstory is barely scratched. The zombies are sort of explained. And the whole thing is very, very silly. When the required ‘good guy caravan' scene arrives, Freddy Rodriguez' El Wray is popping wheelies while comically squatting on a putt-putt Pocket Bike. While Quentin seems to be trying harder to make a ‘good' film, Rodriguez is clearly just having a ball. It's as infectious as its subject matter, and he made good on the promise to finally deliver a grindhouse film that does justice to its poster. It's similar in tone to what John Gulager was going for with Feast, but this is much cooler! Extra points for dusting off the creaky careers of Fahey and Biehn!
Before the second installment rolls, the rest of the pseudo-trailers are unveiled, the first being Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS. Based on the strange subgenre of films about Nazi Dominatrices, it's a two minute blast of goofiness filled with great cameos, including b-movie legends Udo Kier and Sybil Danning. Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead) then does a hilarious spoof of spooky house films made during the period when every b-horror film had a title telling you ‘Don't Look in The Basement!' or ‘Don't Look in the Boxer Shorts!' Wittily, Wright's version is simply titled Don't. Don't do anything, basically. It's very amusing. The final trailer is the one everyone's been buzzing about. Hostel director Eli Roth drops a holiday horror film called Thanksgiving, involving a Michael Myers-esque Pilgrim who goes around hacking and carving locals. It's half funny (a cop dabs his finger in blood, tastes it and somberly states… ‘It's blood!'), half completely disturbing (the ending – just wait for it!). Eli Roth is a sick man and I love him for it.
Roth also gets to do a little acting in Quentin's feature Death Proof (which apparently was meant to be titled ThunderBolt as a hastily overwritten title graphic shows), as a horny young guy attempting to score with the local hotties. Many have been complaining that Death Proof squanders the energy created by the previous film, but I found it to flow rather well. After the insanity of the trailers, it allows the film to take a deep breath and start anew, rebuilding tension for the amazing final act.
After a few more vintage ‘restricted' notices and a reworked Dimension Films logo (made to resemble the brand of Hong Kong film studio Golden Harvest), Quentin starts things off slow with a long, dialogue-driven car ride involving three female friends. The lead girl is a radio deejay named ‘Jungle Julia' (Sydney Poitier) who likes smoking pot and talking trash with her friends. The girls hit a few locales before settling on their watering hole of choice, the Texas Chili Parlor - a haven for lovers of Shiner beer and the awesome tunes on its jukebox. (Big Trouble In Little China fans will want to look for Jack Burton's Chinese tank top hanging above the table the girls occupy.)
Julia's friend Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is without a man, and is told that Julia has mentioned her plight on air. It is then explained that she's been given a code name of ‘Butterfly', and that if a man approaches her and recites the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, it's her duty to give him a lap dance in turn. (We never do see the dance, thanks to another carefully placed ‘missing reel'). Most of these scenes are about letting the film build, since nobody is really doing anything but talking. Rose McGowan returns as a different character that is in desperate need of a ride, which is where Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike steps in.
Russell's career was essentially made by the grindhouse, since before Escape From New York and The Thing he was mainly known for Disney confections like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Stuntman Mike may want to be Snake Plissken, but he's a total loser played to perfection by Russell. Mike claims to have been the main stuntman in a number of classic television westerns (which would make Kurt Russell playing older than he actually is), and cruises around stalking women in his matte black (save for the white electrified Jolly Roger on the hood) modified Chevy Nova (swapped for a Dodge Charger in the second half). For all of his tough guy poses (my favorite being the 'Maximum Strength Icy Hot' sponsorship patch on his racing jacket), he's really a pants pissin' sissy as is discovered in the second half of the film.
You see, all of the exposition in the first bit is Quentin trying to pull a Psycho type bait and switch. It's Stuntman Mike who is the most important character, and the overlong opening slowly reveals his psychotic nature, culminating in a spectacular array of vehicular homicides. He's gone to extremes to ‘deathproof' his car, so that he can drive it into just about anything and survive.
This leads to the introduction of the similarly deathproofed Zoe Bell and her three film industry friends. Zoe plays herself, a Kiwi stunt woman who worked for years as Lucy Lawless' double on Xena-Warrior Princess. She later doubled Uma Thurman on Kill Bill, which is where Quentin met her. However, it wasn't until he later watched the documentary Double Dare (detailing her friendship with Wonder Woman stunt actress Jeannie Epper and the many difficulties inherent in the business) that he recognized her wonderful charisma and decided to write a role for her.
Bell is supposedly in America visiting her friends, but she has an ulterior motive. She's found a white 1970 Dodge Challenger for sale in a local paper – the very car that was the costar in Richard Sarafian's Vanishing Point, arguably the best car chase film of all time. Rosario Dawson continues her streak of geek street-cred roles as the make up artist Abernathy, who reluctantly joins the mission to con a yokel into allowing the girls to take the car out for a test drive.
And not just any drive, mind you – Bell decides to flop herself onto the hood of the car while it's speeding recklessly through the backwater town's myriad dirt roads. This is where Stuntman Mike reappears. The following scenes are great, imaginative stuff, for not only are the two Mopar classics dueling like mad, but Bell's still clinging desperately to the hood throughout the scenario. (Apparently she and Quentin broke a few insurance laws on the sly while filming). I can't tell much more, but suffice it to say that these crazy girls are able to turn the tables on Stuntman Mike unexpectedly.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Quentin's effort is that he somehow resists making a collage of all of his favorite 70's films and manages to focus on telling his own story. Granted, he can throw references around like nobody's business (and both films drop copious nods to his own work as well), but whereas Kill Bill could grow tiresome at times due to the sheer mass of its Frankensteinian limbs, Death Proof is a breezy, fun time that reminded me of why I liked his stuff n the first place. It's definitely my favorite Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.
While both films revel in the gore-laden aspects of exploitation film, it seems that they both wish to transcend the more sexist angles of the genres they love. Though ‘Machete' has a few bare breasts, the ‘sexy' moments from both Planet Terror and Death Proof are the ones excised by the clever missing reels. Cherry Darling takes pains to point out that she's a go-go dancer and not a stripper, and while she is victimized briefly by Quentin Tarantino's military man with a mutated member (don't ask), most of the time she's blowing dudes away with her gun leg. Sex as a weapon indeed.
Death Proof is about a madman who stalks and murders women, but then in rolls Bell and her crew, a bunch of tough chicks who take no shit and are perfectly capable of kicking anyone's ass. Between them and Queen Gorgo in 300, there seems to be a recurring trend of ‘macho feminism' in recent films of geek-culture pedigree. Hopefully this element will be marketed well, so that films such as these will find an audience outside of their built-in male ubernerd core.
For a member of the latter group, I can say that there's plenty to love here. Sure it's three hours, but the time flies by so quickly you won't even miss it. The advance word on the video releases is that both films will be released separately (as they are theatrically in Europe), so this may be your last chance to see them presented in this particular fashion. I do hope to be able to see the other trailers at some point, since Canada gets one called ‘Hobo With A Shotgun' and Europe will apparently get more Tarantino and Rodriguez lensed trailers.
I'd love to be able to see things like this all the time, and wish I knew enough people of like mind to be able to set up my own Grindhouse screenings like Tarantino does in his house. Anybody want to come over for a double feature of Shock Waves and Vanishing Point?