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Planet Terror   A-

Dimension Films / Troublemaker Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews, Michael Parks, Stacy Ferguson, Bruce Willis.

Review by Rob Vaux

Planet Terror was always the superior half of the Grindhouse double bill because it embraced the spirit of the endeavor so completely. Critics inexplicably rushed to praise Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof -- presumably in a lather over the director's auteurial distinctiveness -- without noticing how often it strayed from its stated purpose. Not so Planet Terror. Director Robert Rodriguez never once takes his eyes off the ball, producing a stronger, more energetic, and infinitely more entertaining version of old-fashioned Z-movie thrills. The DVD release serves as further evidence of his commitment. Like the Death Proof DVD, the cut here has been extended, with new footage added to provide a less truncated running time. But unlike Death Proof, the extensions are more seamless, retaining the essence of the original version without raising awkward questions like "Why the hell wasn't this in earlier?" The storyline of toxic, brain-gobbling zombies running rampant in rural Texas while a small band of survivors fights back behind the prosthetic machine-gun leg of ex go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) still holds its subversive kick. The Powers That Be at Dimension Films did it a further service by allowing Rodriguez to keep his marvelous faux trailer at the beginning of the piece, and while we're still missing the remaining three "previews" from the original Grindhouse (I'm dying to see the purported half-hour cut of Werewolf Women of the SS), the sight of Danny Trejo strutting his stuff as Machete makes for a perfect mood-setter.

The extras on the DVD seem fairly run of the mill at first -- one additional disc containing about an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes boilerplate. But they provide subtle insight on how and why the film works so well. For example, while we can already appreciate the appearance of great B-movie staples like Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, Rodriguez apparently went one step further into the Ed Wood Zone by casting non-actors from his everyday life. The owner of the strip bar where Cherry works is played by Rodriguez's realtor, Skip Reissig, while the hospital doctor showing slides of mutilated genitals is his actual MD, Felix Sabates. Such figures bring a strangely appropriate energy to the proceedings, which Rodriguez knows how to deploy in precisely the right amounts.

Another key part of Planet Terror's success was the nifty way it used scratches and cigarette burns to artificially age the film. Tarantino seemed to abandon that idea midway through his effort, but Rodriguez saw it as a way to not only set the tone visually, but to accentuate the onscreen themes and ideas. The DVD's first featurette discusses both how he attained the look, and the way that the physical "damage" to the film stock itself enhances the emotional effect of the scenes depicted within it. Further inspiration arrives with an alternate "audience participation" audio track, which mixes the film's normal sound with properly timed screams and cheers from a theater full of fans. Though more simplistic than the scratch marks, it still demonstrates the filmmakers' desire to keep the Grindhouse experience intact in this new format. While Death Proof engaged in simple repackaging for its home-theater release, Planet Terror uses the opportunity to add another twist of fun to the mix. Now that both films are out, you can more or less approximate the original theatrical release by watching them back to back -- and if you have the means, that's still the way to go. (Check YouTube for the missing trailers, too; they're worth the search!) If you have to pick only one half of the equation, however, the choice is clear. Rodriguez and his zombies have turned that question into a complete (ahem) no-brainer.

Review published 10.15.2007.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Grindhouse.

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