BY MATT JUSTUS
Directors: Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez (and friends)Starring: Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson
This past weekend saw the release of Grindhouse, a double-feature throwback to the exploitation genre flicks of the ’70’s, directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez helms the first half, the zombie gore-fest “Planet Terror,” and Tarantino takes over for “Death Proof,” a suspense shocker that really defies brief explanation. The stated goal of both filmmakers was to replicate the feel of sitting in one of those seedy independent movie theaters of the pre-multiplex era (the titular grindhouses), complete with fake trailers directed by Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) and Eli Roth (Hostel), among others, and ads for grungy “local” restaurants. If the point were only to revisit the cult classic films of thirty years ago, the film would still be a success, but both filmmakers have more on their minds than homage.
To describe the plots of these films in any detail almost misses the point, but I’ll make an attempt in order to let you know what you’re getting yourself into when entering the theater. “Planet Terror” is about a zombie plague that begins to sweep the Texas countryside following a military disaster, and the ragtag group of survivors attempting to fight their way to a cure (or at least to Mexico). The film works, basically by taking the elements of a zombie horror movie and ratcheting them up to comedic levels. Rodriguez is fully aware of how far over the top he’s going, throwing out all plausibility in the name of a laugh or a gross-out moment and having a great time in the process. Fans of genre films of this kind will be pleased at some of the little touches, like Tom Savini, the makeup guy for the original Dawn of the Dead, playing a small-town deputy, just as pop culture fans will get a kick out of the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie’s (rather brief) role. I’ve seen it said several times that if you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t notice that Cherry (McGowan) doesn’t need to pull any kind of trigger to fire her machine-gun leg, you’re the kind of person who will like this movie. I’d say that’s probably true, but it’s just as much fun for those of us who do spot that kind of thing and love it.
After the ninety-minute splatterfest that is “Planet Terror,” Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is quite a change of pace. It starts slowly, following a group of girlfriends out for a night on the town in Austin, Texas. Suffice it to say that things do not go as planned, and the film almost restarts about halfway through, though this time with a slightly sickening feeling in the pit of the viewer’s stomach. The killer, Stuntman Mike (Russell), may well become an iconic film character along the same lines as Kill Bill’s The Bride; picture him as the evil teenager from Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” but all grown up. Tarantino takes a different direction than Rodriguez – instead of presenting a grindhouse-style movie with the volume up to eleven, he plays around with the format. He takes his time, allowing the story to follow the characters for a while, giving the viewer a break from the pure insanity of “Planet Terror.” Then, after taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook, he allows tension to mount to the point where you can nearly forget what’s already occurred, sitting back and listening to the patter of the dialogue. The conclusion is riotous, but crosses grindhouse genres enough to leave off with an ending that is unsettling to say the least, and merely because of the images it presents. I realize that I’m being coy with the language I’m using here – it’s because I don’t want to blow any of the visceral impact of sitting there and experiencing it.
I think each film here works independently, and at roughly ninety minutes each, it’s certainly possible to watch them separately. But the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts – each director does a great job of bringing back the feel of the ’70’s, but both of them, especially Tarantino, put enough of a modern spin on things to keep them fresh. It almost goes without saying that the easily offended should stay away – the trailers contain gratuitous nudity, and the films contain extreme foul language a mind-boggling amount of violence (Rodriguez’s is comical yet still quite gory, Tarantino’s graphically realistic). Obviously, if you didn’t enjoy exploitation films like The Last House on the Left the first time around, and if Tarantino’s more recent Reservoir Dogs and Rodriguez’s Sin City don’t do much for you, you won’t find much here to like either. However, of all the atrocities depicted in the film, none is as great as the fact that Ice Cube’s family nightmare Are We Done Yet? beat Grindhouse at the box office this past weekend. Now that movie, I’m guessing, is truly frightening.
Rating (Planet Terror): ***Rating (Death Proof): ***