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Year Released: 2007
Planet Terror A-
Previews of Coming Attractions A
Death Proof B-
"You find some pretty wonderful things in the trash."
One certainly admires the guiding principle of Grindhouse, though it's not quite as innovative as the hype would have you believe. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino embraced the cheesy thrills of '70s exploitation films some time ago... as did the remainder of Hollywood, whose colossal blockbusters are often just jumped-up variations of second-rate drive-in fare. One look at the current trend of horror remakes tells you everything you need to know about the mindset. The only difference is that the new versions feature expensive sets and rising stars, while the originals made do with whatever was handy at the time. Something has gone missing in the transition. The cheap, tacky thrill of guerilla filmmaking has vanished, and the willingness to push any envelope has been replaced by hedged bets and homogeneity. The B-movie ethos is still the dominant force in Tinseltown. Only its soul has been lost.
The creators of Grindhouse aim to restore that missing piece: to destroy the false veneer of respectability and revel in the seething, earthy joys at the heart of all exploitation fare. Rodriguez and Tarantino have always understood how cheap sensibilities can hold their own special appeal -- and more importantly, why films with nothing to lose can sometimes produce far better results than those with every kind of advantage. Naturally, they cheat a little bit here: big-time stars are in evidence, postmodern winking covers up a fair number of sins, and not all of the visual effects are as nickel-and-dime as they appear (not unless Rose McGowan really lost her leg, that is). But their love for this kind of brazen tackiness is far more than skin deep (as anyone familiar with their body of work knows), and their devotion here produces as gleeful a piece of subversion as one could hope for.
Having said that, Rodriguez definitely sticks closer to the purpose of the exercise. Grindhouse is divided into two separate films -- a built-in double feature, each helmed by one half of the duo. Rodriguez's entry, Planet Terror, not only has the right mix of sleazy pedigree and sick inspiration, but it plays masterfully with the deliberately shoddy state of the celluloid itself. Onscreen, we're treated to a classic story of zombies on the rampage, as chemical ooze from a military base transforms the residents of a small Texas town into boil-laden monstrosities. The survivors include a who's who of genre faces (including Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, and makeup legend Tom Savini), fighting their way to freedom behind the savvy ass-kickery of the mysterious El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his go-go dancer girlfriend Cherry (McGowan). The latter gives the film its signature gimmick when, having lost her leg to an early zombie incursion, she lets her beau refit the stump with a fetching assault rifle/grenade launcher combo.
As simple retro-horror, Planet Terror attains the same delicious depravity as the director's Mariachi films -- respecting the tenets of the genre while placing its tongue just enough in its cheek to let us laugh at the absurdity. Terrific as it is, however, it enters the realm of near-genius with the subtle and marvelous ways in which the film stock interacts with the action onscreen. In keeping with Grindhouse's low-rent atmosphere, Rodriguez has deliberately degraded the print -- with scratch marks, cigarette burns, and awkward cuts where the film has supposedly snapped and been spackled back together by the projectionist. At first, they seem largely a matter of simple mood enhancers -- implying that we really are watching this in some crumbling urban theater -- but they also provide subtle and unique riffs on the action of the story. The awkward jump cuts, for example, occur mainly during key action scenes, as someone's arm is ripped off or a shotgun blast sends brains a-spraying. But Rodriguez (doubling as editor, which he often does) times the cuts such that they enhance rather than detract from the onscreen shock. Like the shower scene in Psycho, the violence of the edits transforms mundane bloodletting into a jackhammer of visceral emotion... only here, it's been cunningly disguised as a "shoddy print."
Nor is such trickery limited to the edits. Similar enhancements crop up throughout the film, each time caused by a different "problem" in the projection room. The most obvious is a "missing reel," which skips over a supposedly key scene only to create a lot of clever humor when we attempt to get back up to speed. But quieter examples function equally well, such as the moment when the film threatens to bubble and melt against the bulb just as the character onscreen is devolving into sloppy, gooey zombiedom. It's in these moments where Rodriguez turns his gross-out fun into something much more: a brilliant, understated experiment in cinematic theory, couched in the language of undead splatterfests.
Unfortunately, Tarantino's efforts are far less impressive... at least at first. His second half of the bill, Death Proof, pays lip service to the same creed as Planet Terror, but only in the most perfunctory ways. Mostly, it's just Tarantino's usual shtick, and after five previous films, it has worn thin indeed. Even the presence of Kurt Russell can't elevate the affair, as his sinister Stuntman Mike stalks a bevy of clueless hotties from behind the wheel of a reinforced Dodge Charger. Most of the first hour takes place at a dingy Texas bar, where a local DJ (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is holding court with her girlfriends. The buildup lasts forever, consisting largely of those endless Tarantino exchanges where the characters chat nonchalantly about nothing in particular. It's been brilliant elsewhere, but here it's just dull -- forcing us to suffer interminably before Mike moves in on his intended victims. Even then, the excitement is marked more by its brevity than its quality, and Tarantino's self-indulgence constantly threatens to overwhelm whatever minor pleasure we can find. Certainly, the lighting and other techniques evoke the proper low-budget mood, but the director has used them so often before that they're practically an auteurial stamp by now, and besides a repeat of the earlier "missing reel" gag, few of his postmodern riffs can hope to compete with Rodriguez's. As Death Proof shambles tactlessly towards its third act (having more or less skipped the second), it's clear that it will really need to knock our socks off if it wants to salvage anything worthwhile.
And then it does.
I dare not reveal the details of the film's climactic 20 minutes, but suffice it to say it involves the most jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, Oh-my-God-this-can't-be-legal stunt since Glenn Randall crawled under a moving truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The performer in question is Zoe Bell, a career stuntwoman who has doubled for everyone from Lucy Lawless to Uma Thurman. She plays herself here, making a modestly decent acting turn that pales in comparison to the breathtaking piece of death-defiance that follows it. That the sequence is reckless at best and criminally irresponsible at worst (shades of Vic Morrow hover ominously throughout) doesn't diminish from the stunning, unforgettable reality of it -- a reality that not only rescues Death Proof from disaster, but is also certain to ensconce Bell among the immortals of her profession.
Still, Tarantino is too good to let his audience suffer so long before delivering the payoff. Nor is Rodriguez the only fellow filmmaker inviting glum comparisons on that front. A series of faux previews -- directed by the likes of Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie, and featuring gloriously Z-grade titles like Werewolf Women of the S.S. -- arrives with headlong exuberance between the two features. Along with Planet Terror, the shorts make Tarantino's tepid efforts feel all the more frustrating. The bargain is more than worthwhile -- an hour of dead space is a fair price for the two hours of anarchic brilliance surrounding it -- but it breaks the heart to think of how much higher it could have soared if Death Proof had found a better rhythm earlier.
Then again, lofty heights are hardly the purpose here: what bottom-feeding flick would be complete if it didn't waste our time just a little? Grindhouse works because it revels in every corner of its drive-in universe, the bad as well as the good. And therein lies its real strength. Every summer is full of movies like this, using big stars and expensive effects to convince us that they're something other than what they are. Grindhouse exposes their hypocrisy for the world to see, while proudly displaying the humble roots which they'd rather we forget. In the process, it makes you believe in the power of guilty pleasures -- suggesting in its own fanboy way that even exploding zombies can be a form of art. Good movies are not defined by their budget or subject matter; only by the talent and devotion of the people involved. Sometimes, it takes an ingenious bit of mayhem to remind us of that fact. And if it's mayhem you want, then Grindhouse is definitely the place to look.
Review published 04.04.2007.
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