Director : Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay : Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : “Planet Terror”--Rose McGowan (Cherry), Freddy Rodríguez (El Wray), Josh Brolin (Dr. William Block), Marley Shelton (Dr. Dakota Block), Jeff Fahey (J.T.), Michael Biehn (Sheriff Hague), Naveen Andrews (Abby), Stacy Ferguson (Tammy), Nicky Katt (Joe); “Death Proof”--Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy), Vanessa Ferlito (Arlene), Jordan Ladd (Shanna), Tracie Thoms (Kim), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee), Zoe Bell (Zoe)
In theory, the idea is brilliantly crackpot. Two of the celebrated wunderkinds of the blood-soaked, video-fueled mid-’90s American independent film revolution joining forces to pay the ultimate homage to the grainy, grimy, cheap-and-nasty exploitation movies that fueled their nascent cinematic imaginations. It would be one movie that is actually two movies, held together by the glue of an imagined double feature format, complete with faux movie trailers before and in-between, with the only thing missing being the literal physical environment of a worn-out, cheapo theater on 42nd Street with sticky floors, sketchy patrons, and a dank smell in the air.
Writer/directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have recreated pretty much everything else about the B-movie experience in Grindhouse, from the aural hiss on the soundtrack, to the splicy cuts and scratchy film damage that are the inescapable result of grinding the same print through a projector day after day, to the occasional missing reel whose lost narrative information underscores just how secondary narrative is to the exploitation enterprise. All three hours of Grindhouse add up to a navel-gazing exercise in nostalgia for a bygone era when trash cinema had its own lurid pedigree and roster of auteurs.
Yet, at the same time, Rodriguez and Tarantino have made a pair of films that could not or would not have been made in the 1970s; they are simultaneously retro and modern in their own unique ways. On the surface, the two movies that make up Grindhouse--Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” which is about a zombie attack on a military base, and Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” which is about a deranged stuntman who uses his car as a deadly weapon--are pure exploitation of three decades past, but both are clearly marked as products of today, and not only because they cost more than $50 million and are playing on more screens simultaneously than hundreds of real grindhouse movies saw in their entire lifetime.
While “Planet Terror” is the more purely nostalgic of the two in terms of its tone and style, Rodriguez can’t help but exploit modern computer-generated effects that his precursors like Jack Hill and Herschell Gordon Lewis could have only dreamed of. His story involves a secret military chemical that, once unleashed on an unexpecting populace, turns them into a hoarde of infected, ravenous zombies. Rodriguez packs the story with characters from every nook and cranny of the exploitation roster, from the angry sheriff (Michael Biehn), to the ethically questionable doctor (Josh Brolin), to the gun-packing tow-truck driver with a past (Freddy Rodríguez).
The heroine is Cherry Darling (Rose MacGowan), a go-go dancer who has just hung up her go-go boots when she gets caught in the gory melee. She loses a leg to the zombies, but gets to replace it with a high-power machine-gun affixed to her stump. This is only one of the many effects that never could have been done 30 years ago, and one wonders what the film would have been like had Rodriguez limited himself to the special effects available circa 1975. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of old-fashioned prosthetic effects courtesy of genre stalwart Greg Nicotero, whose experience dates back to the mid-1980s with his work on George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987). Splatter godfather Tom Savini is even on hand to play a deputy who meets a particularly nasty demise, albeit one aided greatly by digital effects (as are all the gunshot wounds, which splatter outward with the force and velocity of volcanic eruptions).
Rodriguez is clearly not trying for anything new; rather, his métier is informed entirely by the desire to include as much as possible in his amusingly bloated narrative. Thus, in the drive-in parlance of Joe Bob Briggs, we get gratuitous go-go dancing, government conspiracies, gooey pustules, zombie fu, machine gun fu, hypodermic needle fu, mad scientist fu, gallons of blood, dozens of dead bodies, and even a secret barbeque recipe. All of this is ramped up with Rodriguez’s own homegrown musical score, which cheekily references both the Goblins-style heavy metal that was so prevalent in ’70s Italian shockers and the minimalist electronic beats that are so familiar to fans of John Carpenter.
Tarantino, on the other hand, is going for something entirely different in “Death Proof.” Rather than simply recycling the tendencies of the genre in hyped-up postmodern guise, he aims for a fundamental undermining of the gendered power relations that often inform exploitation films. Taking his cues as much from the vixenish grrrl power of Russ Meyer’s oeuvre as he does from high-octane machine-head spectacles like 1974’s Gone in Sixty Seconds and Crazy Mary Dirty Larry (both of which are name-checked, natch), Tarantino gives us a simplistic revenge storyline and fills it out with his trademark dialogue-heavy exchanges.
The problem is that all the dialogue is too Tarantino-esque for its own good and detracts from Grindhouse’s emphasis on the cinematic past. His style also veers away from the B-movie aesthetic, with his carefully framed shots and roving camerawork evoking his own movies more than anything you might have seen in Times Square in the mid-’70s. In a sense, “Death Proof” is too good to be part of Grindhouse. By giving us significant amounts of time with the potential female victims, Tarantino is aiming to humanize them and thus implicate the viewer when they meet a horrid demise at the hands of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), the grizzled serial killer whose instrument of death is a stunt-reinforced Chevy Nova. This is admirable and even partially successful, but it also makes “Death Proof” feel somewhat aimless at times, especially because Tarantino splits our alignment between two different groups of women.
“Death Proof” doesn’t really pick up steam until near two-thirds of the way through when Stuntman Mike makes the mistake of setting his sights on three actresses (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Kill Bill stunt double Zoe Bell playing herself) out for a test drive in a Vanishing Point-style Dodge Charger. Tarantino had already proved himself a provocative and assured director of action with the Kill Bill films, and when he cuts loose with the crash-and-smash of an extended country road chase, you can feel him coming alive. Unlike Rodriguez, Tarantino sticks with the brute force of raw physicality, relying entirely on actual stunts rather than the CGI-enhanced nonsense of the Gone in 60 Seconds remake (which is also name-checked, disparagingly of course). In this way, “Death Proof” not only critiques the typicality of male power exercised violently against women in so many exploitation films, but also the two-dimensional weakness of the CGI that Rodriguez so lovingly embraces in “Planet Terror.”
While Grindhouse has plenty to offer the gorehounds and exploitation aficionados who have eagerly awaited its arrival, its thunder has already been partially stolen by the recent rash of exploitation-era remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,Assault on Precinct 13, The Hills Have Eyes), as well as the neo-grindhouse movement led by James Wan (Saw), Eli Roth (Hostel), and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects). Interestingly, both Roth and Zombie contribute to Grindhouse two of the faux movie trailers that play in-between Rodriguez and Tarantino’s films (Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright also contributes a trailer). These fake coming attractions are among Grindhouse’s highlights, as they distill the essence of the exploitation genre into its purest form: the promise of something you can’t see somewhere else. Watching Zombie’s come-on for “Werewolf Women of the SS” and Roth’s cheapo slasher film “Thanksgiving” remind you of just how wide-ranging and bizarre the whole genre was while having the odd effect of making Rodriguez and Tarantino’s work seem almost tame by comparison.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 The Weinstein Co.