In an effort to tie our review into the Grindhouse double-feature conceit, Dan and I have written separate reviews of each film. That said, while both Planet Terror and Death Proof work as individual movies (as most European markets will screen them), there is something to be said for the full, exhilarating, three-hour experience, complete with fake trailers, adverts, and crossover actors. And as good as each film is, it’s hard to imagine either film working independently as well as they do together, the way Rodriguez’s frenetic action-heavy splatterfest counterbalances Tarantino’s more character-driven, dialogue-rich, collision-and-revenge flick. In either respect, I wouldn’t recommend leaving after the first movie or showing up for the second; they’re both good, and the two together make perfect sense. Like chocolate and peanut butter, T&A, or blood and guts: One is fine, but the combination is downright sinful.
Planet Terror: Oh man: Fast cars, motorcycles, gratuitous close-up shots of cleavage, liquefied faces, grainy scratched-up film, oozing blood, caked-on blood, splattered blood, explosions of blood, goopy gore, zombies, melting genitalia, and Tom motherfucking Savini. I felt like I was 12 years old again, drinking milk, eating cookies, and trying to hold my head up at 3:00 in the morning just long enough to see the climactic torrent of blood that would eventually fill an entire screen with the apocalyptic decimation of the undead. And here I thought I’d gotten it all out of my system, that my adolescent weakness for crimson kablooey had dried up, but Robert Rodriguez brought it all back in a bleeding meat-shank of nostalgia, recalling Dawn, Day, Night, and Return of the Living Dead, Zombi 2, and Blood Feast and reigniting my own flicker of fanboyitis for an exhilarating, blood-drenched 90 minutes. Granted, Death Proof (reviewed below) is smarter, less showy, and probably has more mass appeal, but Planet Terror is for everyone who spent his or her teenage years thumbing through Fangoria and loitering in the aisle of the local video store, which always had the film you most wanted to see. Because no one else did.
But what we didn’t get back then was actual stars (Linnea Quigley notwithstanding), a decent budget, and the expertise of Robert Rodriquez. Indeed, Planet Terror is like watching a live concert of your favorite band cover the guiltiest pleasures of your childhood: Ben Folds doing “Living on a Prayer,” Modest Mouse cranking out “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” or the White Stripes covering Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s bad (so bad), but it’s also so good.
Things get rolling with the opening credits, which play over the lingering close-ups of go-go dancer Cherry Darling’s (Rose McGowan, who has a certain Quigley-esque look about her) stripper-pole performance, which ends with her in tears. Like most of Terror’s flourishes, the tears are largely unnecessary detail; there’s little reason for them, given the already paper-thin nature of the film’s characters — fleshing out their personalities almost seems a wasteful exercise, given where most end up. Anyway, after Cherry’s date with the pole, she heads to a Barth-like diner known for its delicious BBQ, bad company, and unsanitary conditions. There, she runs into El Wray (Freddy Rodriquez), her estranged tow-truck driving boyfriend with a mysterious past, who gives her a ride back home. On the way, however, they are run off the road by a couple of goopy flesh-eaters, who pull Cherry from Wray’s wrecker and snap her leg off with their teeth before Wray scares them away with gunfire.
A chemical virus, let loose by Abby (Naveen Andrews) — a biochemical scientist/businessman who collects testicles — was responsible for the sudden rise in the small-town’s undead population. On a military base outside of town, an evil military man, Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis), attempted to buy Abby’s chemical stockpile (for reasons that have something to do with Osama Bin Laden; it’s funny, but not important), but the deal turned sour and the chemical was unleashed, infecting everyone around. That is, except for those like Cherry and Wray, who managed to avoid contamination, and others, like Muldoon and his soldiers, who wear gas masks and suck down a chemical that prevents their faces from bubbling like melting pizza cheese.
The other “plot” strand involves the deliciously evil Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his bisexual, stereotypically naughty doctor of a wife, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), who both work at the local hospital where the shit really starts to go down. It is there where Dakota’s ex-lover (Fergie) is brought into the ER and an orderly announces, “she’s a no-brainer,” on account of the zombies scooping out her brain (and, given the victim, it’s a two-pronged one-liner). Block then finds out his wife was sleeping with Fergie, so, in a fit of rage, he shoots her hands full of anesthetic, rendering them useless and comically limp. She escapes, but he is infected by a patient (Nicky Katt), who pops his blood pustules into his face.
And that’s the basic setup; the three strands combine and take the townspeople from hospital to diner to military base, where Muldoon is keeping them hostage until … well, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s just say that a military base is another brilliant set-piece that offers a lot of weaponry and plenty of ghouls with bubbly skin and soft heads, which esplode when punctured with ammunition. Also, it has helicopters, the propellers of which can be used for mass decapitations. Who knew? And it’s also where El Wray outfits Cherry with the now familiar machine-gun leg, which she uses with expected results. And yeah, it’s pretty goddamn awesome, even if the device feels slightly borrowed from a guitar case in Rodriguez’s own Desperado. But it’s hard to argue with a go-go dancer who mows down 50 zombies in a merry-go round motion and then blows the smoke off the barrel of her leg. And her hair never musses.
All in all, rather than injecting an annoying wink-wink hipster vibe to an old genre as I’d expected, I actually found that — aside from the Blackberries and cell phones — Planet Terror was every bit the faithful homage to Romero, Savini, Argento, George Armitage, Roger Corman, and their lesser-known colleagues; if those film are not your cup of tea, Terror may not do it for you, unless you have an inordinate fondness for exploding pustules. But in an era where most zombie movies offer subversive twists to the old formula (Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, the upcoming Fido), it was actually refreshing to see one of the old-school variety. It’s a nonsensical bloody spectacle, aggressively supercharged, testosterone-laden, and adolescent as hell. And the 15-year-old id within me loved every second, even if my conscience felt a little guilty for it afterwards.
Intermission: I never thought I’d like anything Rob Zombie does — hell, I never thought I’d see a Rob Zombie film that didn’t give me the kind of screaming nightmares that aren’t even funny to think about a week later — but his trailer for the fictional Werewolf Women of the S.S. is easily the most entertaining thing he’s ever done. It’s part of the series of fake trailers sandwiched in and around Grindhouse, and it’s clear that the contributing filmmakers weren’t afraid to have fun and go for the camp with their ads for the kind of forgotten ’70s trash to which Grindhouse is a painfully loving ode. Edgar Wright’s ad for Don’t is a tongue-in-cheek clip that’s right in line with the director’s awesome Shaun of the Dead, and Rodriguez’s own ad for Machete is an equally hilarious clip, complete with knife fights and a weird threesome in a lake. In fact, all the trailers mix mild suspense with humor to great effect, except for Eli Roth’s ad for the fake Thanksgiving, which is about as sexually perverse as you’d expect from the guy who brought you Hostel and Cabin Fever, where a guy thought he was using his finger to stimulate a woman’s vagina, only to find he was rubbing an open sore. Mmm. Thanksgiving has the same kind of “girl parts are icky” vibe, including a scene on a trampoline that made me pray for temporary amnesia, but other than Roth’s wacky ol’ misogyny, the fake trailers attached to Grindhouse are just as entertaining as the features themselves. And I would totally go see Machete. Who’s with me?
Death Proof: Death Proof is the movie Quentin Tarantino has been waiting to make his whole career, and probably his whole life, and it’s absolutely fantastic. To watch it is to be gloriously shunted right into the man’s skittery, explosive id, where car chases and beautiful but deadly women spin in circles every second of every day while a blistering soundtrack of classic American movie themes and below-the-radar tunes from the past 40 years pours out of a battered jukebox in the corner. It’s not that his previous films weren’t also in line with this style; if anything, they helped lead him here. The one-two gut-punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (and the script for True Romance) gave Tarantino enough cinematic credibility to carry him through the leaner years of the overlooked but lesser Jackie Brown and the overlong Kill Bill epic, which upped Tarantino’s love of all things Tarantinian to an indulgence bordering on the masturbatory. But while Kill Bill was Tarantino’s exhausting ode to the martial arts flicks of his youth that also wanted really badly to be a good story about a strong heroine, Death Proof is a trim, lightning-fast story that’s nothing more than Tarantino doing what he does best for about 80 minutes: Riffing on a great idea.
The opening titles of Death Proof — originally released under another name, in one of the film’s many nods to its spiritual predecessors — unfold over a close-up of female feet propped on the dashboard of a car, idly bopping to Jack Nitzche’s “The Last Race.” Tarantino’s had a thing for feet for a while, but this time he’s enamored of the entire female body, transitioning from the credits to a loving (if slightly creepily so) shot following Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), radio DJ, through her apartment wearing nothing but panties and a snug T-shirt. Soon enough she’s riding in the back of a car, legs luxuriously extended, while Shanna (Jordan Ladd) drives and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) rides shotgun as the trio cruises the streets of Austin. Tarantino’s a pop culture sponge, so it isn’t surprising that his recent collaborations with Robert Rodriguez have infused the first act of Death Proof with a deep love for the ATX, from the glances of the Alamo Drafthouse and Guero’s Taco Bar to the Texas Chili Parlor. From the car to the bar where the girls wind up, Tarantino’s film is an energetic departure from Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in that Tarantino actually down-shifts the action, content to let the story meander while the girls sit around and drink and get high. But the slower story is never dull, as Tarantino keeps the focus on the relationships of the girls and lets them talk and swig Shiner. And oh, does Tarantino have a thing for these women: Julia smokes out on the bar’s porch with her feet propped up on the low fence, and Tarantino captures every raindrop that runs back down her leg, just as he worshipfully frames Arlene’s gently thrusting pelvis as she dances by the jukebox. This is a man pretty much willingly at the mercy of these women, but he’s not (quite) reducing their strength to mere sexuality; it’s more that they are tough, vital women, and for Tarantino, part of that means wielding their sexuality like a weapon.
The film doesn’t even get scary when Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a gravel-voiced older man with a scar down the left side of his face, starts flirting a little with Pam (Rose McGowan) at the bar and occasionally casting an eye over to Julia and the other girls. It’s as if Tarantino is intentionally waiting almost too long before assembling the characters into an actual story, but when he does, it gets intense quickly. Stuntman Mike gives Pam a lift home in his car, a tricked-out muscle car meant for stunt work, but as soon as she’s in the car, he stops pretending to be normal and simply advises her in a frighteningly conversational tone that she’d “better start getting scared.” And just like that, Tarantino makes the leap from atmospheric short film to terrifying thriller, sliding between the two with ease and grace. I’d rather not go into how the sequence pans out; just watch for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.
A year later, Stuntman Mike is in Tennessee, and winds up stalking another group of young women: Abbie (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Zoe Bell, playing herself. Kim and Zoe are stunt workers, and the four wind up test-driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger in an overt nod to Vanishing Point, one of the many films from which Tarantino culled the raw material for his own. One of the best scenes in the film is a continuous take of the foursome eating lunch at a diner while the camera gently circles them to capture their conversation, but also captures Mike eating casually at the bar before leaving. Tarantino is dangling the potential danger right in front of the victims, and it’s eerie. Mike eventually starts harassing the women while they’re driving the Challenger, resulting in some terrifying stuntwork from Bell, but the women wind up fighting back in a way Mike never anticipated. That they do so isn’t exactly a surprise; after all, after the almost throwaway first act and the plainest of introductions to the new bunch of characters, there wouldn’t be much of a film if they all just gave up and went home. But it’s another testament to Tarantino’s love of and respect for his female characters, however twisted that love might look in execution, that they are resolutely strong, unfailingly loyal, and ultimately unbreakable.
In addition to all that, Death Proof has a stylistic leg up on Planet Terror: While Rodriguez’s film never abandoned the look of scratched film negatives or poorly dubbed sound, Tarantino slowly phases out the gimmicks to focus on the story’s underlying suspense. It’s as if he wants to celebrate the good old days but also preserve whatever potency his film has in its own right, and it ultimately makes his film the slightly better of the pair, not because it takes itself too seriously, but because it never tries to force the joke. The music is equally fantastic, a mix tape of movie geekdom that includes Pino Donaggio’s “Sally and Jack” from Brian DePalma’s Blow Out and Eddie Beram’s “Riot in Thunder Alley” from, well, Thunder Alley. The whole thing is held together by Tarantino’s unshaking hand and relentless pursuit of the cheap American thrill-ride that’s informed his aesthetic from the beginning. And at that, the film is an unqualified success.
For better or worse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino love making movies, and love doing it their own way. I think it’s for the better. As collaborators, the pair of writer-directors influence each other to new and greater heights, from the slick and earnestly cornball neo-noir of Rodriguez’s Sin City, on which Tarantino co-directed some, to the epic experiment that is Grindhouse. They’ve created a world both proudly fictional and yet oddly real, as if performed by a troupe of actors accustomed to rotating roles in a series of pulp exploitation flicks. The line between the two films is blurry at best; Rose McGowan plays two distinctly different characters in each, yet Marley Shelton appears in both as the same character, as does Michael Parks, who appears as Sheriff Earl McGraw in both Planet Terror and Death Proof. The rabbit hole gets a little deeper when you realize that Parks also played McGraw in the Kill Bill films. It’s a blood-filled, profanity-laced, rocket-fueled blast of three solid hours, swinging from zombie flick to campy sex to straight-ahead action to psychological thriller without pausing for breath. Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s half-films couldn’t exist without each other, since each half informs the whole experience. Taken individually, each brief feature is a graphic but heartfelt throwback; taken together, it’s an unforgettable ride, and the kind of movie that will likely inspire its own imitators a generation from now.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Film | April 6, 2007 | Comments ()