Like two friends daring one another to take it a step further, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez dispense with the pretense of simply making movies that nod to the lurid, exploitive ones of their misspent youths and actually create a double feature of the sort that might have played at the grindhouses young Quentin and Robert may have frequented. Hell, it’s all right there in the title, isn’t it?
Like Tarantino’s Kill Bills, which were little more than a comfortable cinematic quilt stitched together from homages, allusions and straight samples of ’70s genre entertainment, Grindhouse is a valentine to the era, a museum of retro pop culture curated by an aficionado and tour-guided by a boisterous carnival barker.
And like 1995’s Four Rooms (which the pair directed the very best bits of), it’s an anthology picture showcasing A-List directorial talent, with Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) and Rodriguez himself providing trailers for four outrageous films that have to be made (Particularly Rodriguez’s; I’ll say nothing more of these for risk of spoiling their awesomeness).
It’s a decidedly unique viewing experience–at least at a 2007 multiplex, it is–with the films themselves embedded in a celluloid time capsule composed of the trailers, old school theater announcements, ratings segments and ads inserted, all of them “aged” with nicks, scratches and jumps to look like old movies (Oddly, both of the feature films include cell phones, text message and references to current events, dispelling the illusion that they were made 30 years ago).
First up is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, his take on the zombie apocalypse genre that has been back with such a fierce vengeance since 2002’s 28 Days Later (And the zombie renaissance’s moment has passed, as far as I’m concerned, moving from zeitgeist-grabber to cynical moneymaker). Of course, like the best zombie apocalypses, it never uses the word “zombie,” and they’re not even technically undead. Rather, Rodriguez’s zombies are simply infected disease carriers who will eat you.
The Rodriguez who shows up is the same one who made Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, the action director intent on knocking your eyes out of their sockets and either turning your stomach or making you laugh your guts up with crazy gore (depending on your predilection for super-fake ultra-violence).
As for the plot, in Austin, Texas, some shady characters at an abandoned military base are making a deal involving a poison gas that turns people into slow-moving, rotting cannibals covered in big, pulsing flesh bubbles (Sort of the equivalent of humanoid boils, which makes it all the gorier when they get themselves popped).
The gas gets into the air, and soon a small band of badass Lone Star State survivors are all that stand between the surprise cameo Big Bad and a whole planet of infectees. These include Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer (not a stripper!) with a couple dozen “useless talents” that end up proving quite useful; Marley Shelton’s Dr. Dakota Block, who wears syringes on her garter belt; Freddy Rodriguez’s Wray, a tow truck driver with a mysterious past and some sweet moves; Michael Biehn’s Texas sheriff; Naveen Andrews’ Iraqi biochemist who dresses like a member of Aerosmith. Look for mandatory cameos from Tarantino and Tom Savini.
Rodriguez projects an infectious giddiness in the action and sight gags, but even though the whole thing feels like a lark, it’s incredibly well-written, with no line or scene wasted and the characters so organic and likeable it oughta embarrass the hell out of Hollywood’s whole horror industry for the crap they churn out. The delirious climax, involving an unexpected use of McGowan’s well-publicized prosthetic leg, is pretty much the cinematic definition of the word awesome.
Planet Terror is a hard, maybe impossible, act to follow, so its perhaps unsurprising that Tarantino’s Death Proof–which meshes a proto-slasher flick vibe with incredible pre-CGI style stunt driving of the sort not often seen outside the Hazzard County lines–seems a little flat in comparison.
A group of hot, nubile young women convene at an Austin bar patronized exclusively by hot, nubile young women owned by a character played by Tarantino himself. There they meet a creepy but charming character by the name of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who drives a scary stunt car that’s “better than safe….it’s death-proof.” He soon demonstrates just how death-proof it is by using it as a weapon in beautifully constructed (if horribly gory) scene.
Later, a second group of hot, nubile young women are introduced, but these are the wrong hot, nubile young women to fuck with–Hollywood stylist Rosario Dawson, stuntwoman Tracie Thoms and (real-life) stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill).
The flick bears all of Tarantino’s trademarks, both good and bad. A mostly washed-up actor proving just how good he really is, talky dialogue, characters from other films wandering through, and a carefully chosen soundtrack (a juke box gets so much screen time in this flick, I was surprised it didn’t get a listing in the cast credits). His is an oddly structured film, with a long build-up to a horrific act, followed with another, even longer build-up to a bravura action sequence and a kung fu flick sudden freeze frame ending. But by the point a second group of beautiful young women who speak exactly like Tarantino writes appear, the novelty had grown a tad tiresome (Tarantino also repeats a trick Rodriguez used in his segment to capitalize on the truncated running time, to lesser effect).
It’s still a fun, funny and engaging flick full of visceral thrills, but it would have probably played stronger as the opener of the double feature, given that it lacks the propulsive momentum of Planet Terror.