Once upon a time, more than eight years ago, the mighty filmmaking team of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino collaborated yet again on a project that paid homage to the drive-in exploitation movie memories of their youth. But this time instead of Rodriguez directing a Tarantino script or Tarantino doing a cameo in one of Rodriguez’s movies, the two teamed up to bring us a rare cinematic experience: an old school night at the movies, two features for the price of one, complete with fake trailers directed by the cream of the genre cinema crop sprinkled between the main attractions.
For inspiration, Rodriguez and Tarantino reached back into the past to the days when VCRs and DVD players were only gestating ideas and the only way to experience true B-grade cinema was to go to your rundown neighborhood grindhouse to catch a double or triple bill of the latest blaxploitation thriller, chop-socky adventure, and gruesome horror extravaganza.
In a grindhouse theater you got more than a few movies, you got the whole enchilada: trailers for coming attractions, cartoons, short films, restaurant ads, and a reeking ambiance that you can’t replicate in the privacy of your own home unless you want to get kicked out.
The aptly-titled Grindhouse turned out to be much more than a movie; it was both a love letter and the ultimate tribute to the forbidden fruits of cinema by a pair of adoring fans and first class filmmakers.
There’s a lot to take in here so I will break down the features one by one.
Machete– True to form, we open with a trailer for a 1970’s-style action flick starring Rodriguez staple Danny Trejo as a Mexican day laborer hired by a mysterious well-dressed man (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a US senator. Sure enough Machete is set up for the big betrayal and left for dead. After recovering he sets out to take revenge on those behind the frame up with the help of a former comrade (Cheech Marin) who has since become a priest. Turns out our boy Machete is a former federale with expertise in guns and explosives, and is proficient in throwing his trademark machetes like a distant cousin to Trejo’s character in Desperado.
The gods of manly action classics would surely welcome Machete into their fold. The man’s a jack of all trades and Trejo looks and plays the part like a true master of adventure. From nailing two topless babes under a waterfall to leaping over an exploding barricade on a motorcycle blasting a Vulcan cannon, Machete brings the excitement. As it goes with any good trailer, this one leaves you wanting more. After the release of Grindhouse Rodriguez began talking about making a Machete feature for the direct-to-video market, but three years later it was released theatrically with Trejo fronting a truly mind-frying ensemble cast that included Jessica Alba, Robert DeNiro, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, and none other than Steven fuckin’ Seagal as the Mexican villain.
Rodriguez incorporated some of the footage he shot for the trailer into the full-length feature and though Machete was hardly a box office blockbuster it did well enough to spawn a belated sequel, the inferior (but still fun in its own way) Machete Kills. That one just bombed outright at the box office, making the chances of this gonzo action saga’s third installment, Machete Kills Again in Space, ever being made slim enough to fit into one of the crevices in Trejo’s face.
Planet Terror– Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse power twosome is a unabashedly balls-out tribute to the sci-fi horror action movies of such genre greats as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Romero, James Cameron, and Stuart Gordon. Set in a small Texas town over the course of one night, Planet Terror begins with the attempted sale of a deadly biological weapon known as DC2 (aka “Project Terror) to a Marine platoon led by the uncaring Muldoon (Bruce Willis). The sale goes south and in desperation military scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews), the man responsible for brokering the deal, shoots the canisters containing the virus. Project Terror is on the loose.
Meanwhile, frustrated go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) has just quit her job and is sitting in a roadside BBQ shack owned by J.T. (Jeff Fahey…again!) when her old flame, the mysterious El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), walks in. Clearly the two have a complicated past. Wray offers to give Cherry a ride home. On the way Wray swerves his truck to avoid hitting something in the road and the truck flips over, crashing off the road. Cherry is pulled out of the truck by a group of shadowy figures and taken screaming into the night. Wray grabs a rifle and goes looking, and when he finds Cherry alive she’s missing a leg. The people who took her ate her leg. Wray takes her to the nearest hospital, presided over by cynical doctor William Block (Josh Brolin) and his anesthesiologist wife Dakota (Marley Shelton).
Dakota is currently planning to leave her husband and run away with her lesbian lover Tammy (Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie), but her attempts to keep it secret from the good doctor aren’t working. Not to mention Tammy’s car has broken down and in trying to flag down someone to help her gets attacked and eaten by more people infected by the rapidly spreading DC2. Block attends to his friend Joe (Nicky Katt), who has a strange bite on his arm and some rather disturbing lesions on his tongue. Fearing the worst Block advises Joe to have his arm severed so the infection won’t spread to his vital internal organs. The local sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) and his two deputies Tolo (gore god Tom Savini) and Carlos (Carlos Gallardo, the original El Mariachi) arrest Wray for Cherry’s maiming not believing his wild story of the sickos who actually ate her leg.
Back at the hospital Block discovers Dakota’s infidelity when the paramedics wheel in Tammy’s partially-devoured corpse. The sinister doctor attacks his wife with her own needles, numbing her hands, and locks her in a closet. In the midst of all this the infected start pouring in. Hague and his men are attacked at the police station but get some unexpected assistance from a more than capable Wray, who decides to head for the hospital to retrieve Cherry with Hague and the deputies riding along. Block finds Joe has become one of the infected and becomes one himself when his diseased former friend spreads virus-ridden goop all over the doctor’s face. Dakota manages to escape from the hospital but is forced to drive with two numb hands to pick up her son Tony (Rodriguez’s son Rebel) currently being watched by the Crazy Babysitter Twins (Electra and Elise Avellan, Rodriguez’s former stepdaughters).
Wray finds Cherry and sticks a table leg in the spot where her real leg used to be and the two of them flee the hospital, rendezvousing back at J.T.’s place with the sheriff, his deputies, and several uninfected townsfolk. With the number of infected growing by the hour, this disparate group must band together to fight the ravenous hordes hungry for their flesh and survive the night while trying to unlock the mystery of Project Terror’s origins.
Planet Terror, much like his previous film Sin City, is Robert Rodriguez unleashed. This is the kind of full tilt boogie lurid and ultraviolent action splatter-fest that used to pour out of drive-in movie screens on hot summer nights and crowd the horror rack at your local video store. If this movie had been released in the 1980’s England would’ve proudly placed it on their “Video Nasties” list. Rodriguez has said before in interviews that he sees Planet Terror as “the lost John Carpenter movie between Escape from New York and The Thing” and that just says it all. He even composes, with a little help from his musician friends, a terrific musical score that recalls the great synthesizer scores of Carpenter’s earlier films.
This is not a movie that plays by normal rules. Every person in the movie has the license to give free rein to become their inner superhero. People run up walls, shoot syringe guns, and use a rocket launcher on their leg to propel themselves into the air in order to blast a waiting group of pustule-oozing zombie Marines on the other side of a building. This is Rodriguez’s own comic book universe, his every cinematic fantasy made flesh, and it’s amazing. KNB EFX pulls out all the stops to provide the grisliest effects they have ever produced. This is one of their finest hours.
Rodriguez chose a fine cast to bring his B-movie archetypes to bold, colorful life. Rose McGowan gets one of her best roles in years playing the tough but gentle Cherry Darling. Cherry is given a clever running joke throughout the movie as she expresses her desire to become a stand-up comedian and tries to prove to an unconvinced Wray that she’s funny. But when her old boyfriend attaches a modified machine gun to her lonely leg stump Cherry enters the pantheon of iconic action heroes. She’s a goddess of destruction, and McGowan gives the part her all. Freddy Rodriguez (no relation) is not everyone’s first choice to play an unlikely action superhero, but as the versatile El Wray he certainly impresses. Running up walls, wielding some wicked knives, and keeping his ex-girlfriend calm and encouraged is all part of a night’s work for this pint-sized badass, even if that bit of peach fuzz on his chin doesn’t fool me.
Marley Shelton, another member of Rodriguez’s ever growing repertory company, gets her fair share of moments to shine as the anesthetic gun-sporting wonder woman Dakota Block. At certain times she’s bears an uncanny resemblance to Uma Thurman, and that’s okay because I love Uma. Michael Biehn gives a commanding comeback performance as the hardened Sheriff Hague, all action and no bullshit. Jeff Fahey gets to play his role of grizzled barbecue gourmet J.T. with a welcome sense of humor. He has a great bickering chemistry with Biehn, who turns out to be J.T.’s estranged brother. Bruce Willis gets to play himself once again as the cold and cynical Lt. Muldoon, but why complain when he plays himself like a fucking pro? Naveen Andrews subverts the serious television persona he built on “Lost” with a cutting wit as the obligatory scientist who provides handy exposition, but he’s given a rather twisted character trait and Andrews is clearly savoring the opportunity to play such a useful bastard.
The Avellan sisters are wonderfully gonzo as the sexy but goddamn insane Crazy Babysitter Twins. Tom Savini provides more comic relief as the dumbass deputy Tolo, but he gets his own shining moment when he dispatches a zombie with a brilliant gun move. Josh Brolin is a long way from The Goonies playing the sadistic Doc Block (“His prescription….pain!”), a role he sinks his teeth into with disturbing glee. Michael Parks returns to reprise his role as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw and gets to unload his six-shooter on a few zombies like the manly man he is.
Planet Terror is pure fun for lovers of two-fisted action flicks and blood-and-guts horror alike. Lock up your inhibitions and have a great time.
To this day Planet Terror remains my favorite half of the Grindhouse double bill. I had the pleasure recently of watching the extended cut on the Blu-ray that was released nearly two years before the full experience finally made its way to the format. It’s some of the purest exploitation cinema made since the sleaze pit bijous and drive-ins were permanently shuttered and converted to flea markets and cost-free motels for squatters. It’s also the last truly great feature Rodriguez made. The spectacular box office flame-out of Grindhouse impacted him more than it did Tarantino; from that moment on the majordomo of Troublemaker Studios had to search for work at other studios or outside independent financing for his projects that held limited mass audience appeal.
His collaborator bounced back from Grindhouse‘s failure to connect with modern moviegoers by making two of the best and most successful films of his career, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. In comparison, Rodriguez’ Planet Terror follow-up was the episodic kiddie flick Shorts, released theatrically around the same time as Basterds in August 2009. The next year he made good on his promise to convert Machete into a feature and the result was a hugely entertaining B-action thriller on Terror‘s level that was cheaper to make and thus able to turn a profit during its theatrical run. But other films Rodriguez desired to make, like updated adaptations of Barbarella and Red Sonja, never made it out of Development Hell.
Now for more trailers.
Thanksgiving – Eli Roth’s contribution to the Grindhouse fake trailer reel is his homage to gruesome 1980s slasher flicks and a diseased little corker that lets loose some quality holiday-themed carnage. Using available members of his Hostel Part II cast and creating a small Massachusetts town in Prague, Roth lets loose his nasty and vicious imagination to give us a hint of what a funny gorefest he would make out of Turkey Day. The gore gags on display are priceless.
Werewolf Women of the S.S. – Melding horror and Naziploitation flicks like Love Camp 7 and the infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S., Rob Zombie creates the trailer for his ultimate grind house epic with the help of several members of his Halloween remake cast including Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley. Routinely dismissed as the least of the Grindhouse trailer collection, Zombie’s contribution is still a lot of fun complete with an out-of-left field cameo from Nicholas Cage as….Fu Manchu!
Don’t – Last but not least is the jewel of the Grindhouse trailer reel, an uproarious send-up of ineptly marketed European horrors directed by Edgar Wright and starring most of his Hot Fuzz cast (you bloody well know who). A rapid fire anthology of intense horror mainstays underscored with an announcer (Will Arnett) screaming “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” Wright’s contribution is a twisted delight.
Death Proof – Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse pays unabashed tribute to the four-on-the-floor car chase epics of the 1960s and 1970s like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Split into two tonally-different acts, the first focuses on a group of young women out for a night on the town: Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), visiting from New York; Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a beautiful but occasionally insensitive local disc jockey; and Shanna (Jordan Ladd), their hard-partying friend.
At a bar they encounter Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a former movie and TV stuntman who enjoys hanging out in bars practicing his rusted pick-up techniques on the younger women who frequent the joint. Mike offers to give wisecracking hippie chick Pam a ride home, and this is where we the stuntman’s true colors. It turns out he likes jumping into his “death proof” stunt car and running down the ladies who don’t buy into his masculine wiles. After giving Pam her last ride, Mike turns around and speeds off after Arlene and company.
Act two takes place sometime later. Mike is now in Tennessee stalking another small group of women, this particular bunch in town working on a cheerleader flick: actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), make-up artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and stuntwomen Zoe (Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). Zoe drags her friends up to the house of a creepy rancher who’s selling a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Ever since seeing Vanishing Point Zoe has always wanted to get behind the wheel of one of these mean machines. Leaving Lee behind to keep the creep company, Zoe and her two friends take the Challenger out for a test spin.
With Kim at the wheel and Abernathy riding in the backseat, Zoe climbs onto the hood to play “Ship’s Mast”. As the Challenge roars down the empty country highway, Stuntman Mike decides to join the ladies and give them a time to remember. Barely surviving, the ladies take it upon themselves to turn the tables on the fleeing stuntman. This time Mike isn’t getting away that easy.
Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s idea of a chick flick. We are in the company of a group of fiercely-independent and intelligent women out for a good time who know very well how to take care of themselves. It’s a lot of fun to spend time with these lovely ladies because each group has their own authentic chemistry, aided by Tarantino’s trademark knack for meaty dialogue. Even if you’re a guy you can’t help but be carried along and feel like you’re part of each group.
That’s when Kurt Russell walks in. A true silver screen icon known for his defining roles in John Carpenter’s films Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell returns to the type of badass character that he built his career on. Stuntman Mike can go from affable and charismatic to cruel and violent when he gets behind the wheel of his “death proof” car to pursue his attractive quarry. Endowing his auto psycho with his trademark charm and good humor, Russell gives one of the best performances of his career.
The true heart of Death Proof is Tarantino’s wonderfully-drawn female characters and the actresses he wisely chose to play them. Vanessa Ferlito is great as Arlene, the friend who finds herself simultaneously repulsed and intrigued by Mike. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of screen acting legend Sidney Poitier, has a ball playing the hot and slightly catty Jungle Julia who has no patience for people she sees through immediately. Jordan Ladd’s character doesn’t get much focus but she stills acts her heart out playing a lovable character. Making her second appearance in Grindhouse is Rose McGowan, playing a character whose sad beauty and endearing cynicism could almost make her a distant cousin to Cherry Darling, but does in fact serve her up as easy prey for the cool Stuntman Mike.
In my opinion the actresses who turn up in Death Proof’s second half are the true stars of the movie. Rosario Dawson plays Abernathy as another in her staple of sweet and adorable heroines. It’s a wonderful role given personality and life by Dawson. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s vaguely naïve actress Lee is the “Shanna” of this act but she still gives a good show and doesn’t annoy. Tracie Thoms gives her character Kim a loving demeanor with a “don’t fuck with me” attitude on the side. She’s awesome.
The breakout performance of Death Proof, and indeed all of Grindhouse, comes courtesy of veteran stuntwoman Zoe Bell, a New Zealand native making her acting debut here. If you’ve ever seen Zoe in interviews then it doesn’t come as a surprise that her cute and friendly superwoman is essentially an extension of her own personality, and she does all of her own stunts to boot. Bell is the true star of this movie and deserves a long and fruitful career. How can you not love her?
Death Proof finds the equally admired and maligned Quentin Tarantino indulging in his fetishistic love for insane car chases, old school tough guys, and the bare feet of beautiful women. Recalling the good ol’ days when CGI was a laughable pipe dream and the stunts were done for real, the stunt work in Death Proof is first class, the real deal all the way. The car chases are thrilling and intense as the director puts you in the driver’s seat to experience the action first hand. The movie is an honest-to-Buddha rollercoaster ride that fully engages you on a visceral level with no breaks. Death Proof is a much different film from Planet Terror but it yields more than its fair share of rewards.
In the years since the release of Grindhouse Tarantino has been brutally honest about Death Proof‘s place in his filmography, even referring to it as the worst movie he has ever made. Personally I would assign that dishonorable honor to Kill Bill V.2, but I digress. The filmmaker bounced back from the failure of his epic collaboration with Rodriguez by making two of the biggest hits of his career, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Prior to making Death Proof Tarantino had been working at a Malickian pace, but watching Grindhouse go down in flames at the box office seemed to have motivated the notoriously combative but gifted enfant terrible of cinema to get busy directing or get busy dying.
At first Death Proof appears oddly constructed in terms of its story, but that unconventional structure serves the film well if you accept it as two short films each with their own three-act layout melded together instead of as one film split into two distinct halves. The first half, set in Austin, TX, is set mostly at night and is designed visually to be a nihilistic slasher flick with a conclusion as inevitable as any scuzzy blood horror that spilled onto the movie screens in the genre’s heyday. The second, shot in the broadest of daylight with rural California standing in for rural Tennessee, is a full-speed rape revenge movie centering on a group of wronged women getting some wondrously cathartic payback against the perverted psychopath who tried to take away everything they had. Only in this case the rapist is a crazed ex-stuntman using his custom killing machine to batter what he perceives to be a lesser car driven by a lesser gender into nothingness and then bend them all to his sickening will.
It’s like Death Proof was one of those cinematic Frankenstein monsters that guys like Al Adamson and Sam Sherman used to stitch together out of pieces of movies that started production but fell apart and were left unfinished or were released but did absolutely no business. We accept that Russell is still playing Stuntman Mike in the second half, but he’s never referred to by that name (not even by himself) and he even drives a different car than in the first half. Is it possible then that we’re watching two different movies edited together to become one, with the scene with Shelton and the Parks men added to bridge the distinct narratives? Go into Death Proof with that mindset and it starts to make a little more sense. I feel a revisit is in order soon.
When you add every single element of this sucker up you have a cinematic experience unlike any other. Grindhouse is a movie made by film fans for film fans. I love it, and so will you.