Robert Rodriguez has said that for him while filming his half of Grindhouse, grindhouse cinema came to represent freedom . Freedom to color completely outside the usual moviemaking lines and do any thing he wanted as fast as he wanted, and damn the consequences. It shows in his movie. Planet Terror is out of control, over the top, and a lot of fun. Rodriguez goes out of his way to take advantage of everything this crazy exploitation medium offers him. Quentin Tarantino on the other hand uses it to make Death Proof, a talky movie about skanky club chicks hanging out in Austin and getting mildly stoned. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think maybe Tarantino missed the point.
Grindhouse is Tarantino and Rodriguez’s homage to a long gone era of rat infested theaters, damaged projectors, scratchy prints, and exploitation films that existed before the popularity of home video. The local grindhouse was the place you went to see movies you couldn’t see anywhere else, most of the time because they were so bad no one else wanted to play them, but also because they existed on the fringes of respectable society by showcasing extreme violence, sex, nudity, and berserk, experimental ideas and themes. Grindhouse attempts to capture the essence of that experience and resurrect it in one big event with two movies, one from each acclaimed director, shown back to back. This is an event, not just a movie, so Grindhouse comes complete with appropriately over-the-top fake trailers and cheesy, old fashioned bumpers before each film.
It begins with a trailer for a non-existent movie called Machete, in which a Mexican day laborer is picked up off the street and hired to assassinate a political figure. The trailer is a piece of wonderfully violent lunacy, and it’s the ideal way to set the stage for the first half of Grindhouse, the Robert Rodriguez directed zombie movie Planet Terror.
Rodriguez was born to be a grindhouse director. He already has a reputation for quick and dirty filmmaking and in Planet Terror he’s at his quickest and dirtiest. His film explodes on to the screen and never lets up, slathering on layer after layer of absurdity, action, disgusting gore, and manic wit. When it reaches that place where most movies pause to bring everything together, Rodriguez fakes a missing reel so he can skip over the boring parts and get right to the business of shooting zombies in the head and blowing shit up. The film just keeps going further and further, every moment is bigger and crazier than the next. The director and his cast are obviously having a blast making it, and their enthusiasm for what they’re doing leaks right out of the screen and into the audience.
Rose McGowan is the star of Planet Terror, and she has a smaller role in Tarantino’s Death Proof as well. She kills in both of them, but in PT she really owns the screen. McGowan actually sells having a machine gun for a leg. She treats it like it’s Superman’s cape, and when she puts it on it’s like watching Clark Kent rip off his shirt to reveal a red “S” underneath. McGowan needs to find a way to do more of this. Like Rodriguez it’s as if she was made for it, as if she was born a few years too late and should be known as the reigning Queen of Grindhouse, not as that chick from ‘Charmed’.
Visually, Planet Terror is a masterpiece of disaster. Rodriguez has gone out of his way to scratch up, fade, and fake splices in his movie to mimic the way old grindhouse theaters showed broken, damaged, and worn out prints. However it’s not done arbitrarily. Imagine if you watched a messed up movie reel in which all the splices, all the burned frames, all the little things that can go wrong with projecting a film do go wrong, but all happen to go wrong in all the right places. For instance a hot and heavy sex scene between Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez fades and splices as if it’s been watched over and over again late at night by horny projectionists and been worn out in the process. But the way it fades, and the way the color goes out of balance, and the way it scratches happens in this bizarre yet fantastically organic way which somehow only heightens the eroticism of the moment. A simple sex scene in a back room suddenly becomes a pair of beautiful writhing bodies generating so much raw heat that it burns the picture right off the screen. It seems like the most amazingly perfect coincidence, but it’s no accident.
Between Planet Terror and Death Proof are three more hilarious fake trailers. The most talked about of those will undoubtedly be the one for Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving horror movie in which an axe wielding pilgrim terrorizes a small town and eventually serves up the film’s director on a platter with a turkey thermometer shoved in his anus. It’s quite a moment. But there’s really no beating the cameo of a certain celebrity as Fu Man Chu, in a fake horror trailer directed by Rob Zombie and starring his wife Sheri Moon Zombie.
Finally Grindhouse launches into Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and for a moment it almost seems that, impossibly, Tarantino has actually managed to up the ante. There’s a hilarious gag in the credits sequence which sent the audience I saw it with roaring in spontaneous delight, the way we’d already been doing throughout Planet Terror. Sadly, from there on the thing goes dead as QT launches into a long, talky setup in which groups of mid-twenties babes lounge around in bars and talk about nothing. It’s like an all female episode of Seinfeld, only with cursing and without any jokes. Gone are the creative, intentional visual errors and grim grimy atmosphere of Rodriguez’s movie. In their place is a bright, dusty movie which does a great job of showcasing cool Austin landmarks but takes its sweet time to get around to doing much else.
When Kurt Russell finally shows up in his car from hell it’s a relief. Russell has still got it, and he’s doing yet another brilliant variation on his tough guy persona as Stuntman Mike, a maniac with a muscle car he insists is 100% death proof. Unfortunately for his passengers, the whole death proof thing only works if you’re sitting in the driver’s seat.
Much of Death Proof is a serious bore, with unending and completely unnecessary dialogue that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. Granted, Tarantino’s known for his massive amount of conversation, but the dialogue he wrote here lacks much of the shocking wit that make it so interesting in his other movies. Thankfully, the film redeems itself in the final act by launching into an amazing chase sequence, as the women Stuntman Mike has been terrorizing decide to strike back, and hunt him down on the open road. The movie switches from an unending stream of needless exposition into a hardcore duel between badass American muscle cars. Tarantino’s car chase is an homage to every great muscle car chase movie you’ve ever seen, and the cars growl and ram and grind all over the road. It’s a fantastic piece of action filmmaking, and easily one of the greatest car chases to make it on screen in years. The problems of the rest of the film are quickly wiped away, and suddenly Death Proof remembers why we’re all there watching it, and commences with knocking your socks off.
Maybe though the flaw is not with Death Proof, but with the order in which these two films are shown. There’s so much going on in Planet Terror, so much in every moment of the film, it’s so explosive, that it’s an impossible act to follow, let alone with a dialogue heavy, action-late flick like Death Proof. Shown first, Death Proof might have been the perfect ramp up to Rodriguez’s explosion of madcap, grindhouse glee, the perfect primer to the truly out of control experience Rodriguez delivers. Ultimately though, Death Proof’s hiccups are a minor problem, Grindhouse works as intended. This isn’t the best movie of the year, but it’s not trying to be. Instead of making two good movies, they’re focused on creating an incredible experience. Grindhouse does that beautifully. If you’re in on the bit, you absolutely won’t have more fun watching anything in a movie theater this year. Watching it in a theater is key though. There’s no way this works on DVD. Grindhouse is all about atmosphere, and you can’t get atmosphere at home on your couch. Get up off your ass and buy a ticket.