Robert Rodriguez (segment Planet Terror) (fake trailer segment Machete)
Quentin Tarantino (segment Death Proof)
Eli Roth (fake trailer segment Thanksgiving)
Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment Don’t)
Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment Werewolf Women of the S.S.)
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews, Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Parks, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Bruce Willis
Grindhouse, from directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, is actually two movies in one – a throwback/homage to the double bill grind house pictures of the 70s and early 80s. In attempting to recreate the experience, the movies are padded with fake trailers for exploitation pictures and modified with grainy footage effects, disjointed editing in spots, and even missing scenes. The result is a pleasant 3 hour experience as a whole, even if the individual parts turn out to be a mixed bag.
Grindhouse starts out right away tickling the fanboy geek-spot with the familiar Grindhouse Release logo and accompanying music.
First up is a faux-trailer for the movie Machete, which is a hilarious offering about an illegal Mexican immigrant (Danny Trejo, natch) set up by the man, left for dead, who returns to exact revenge using a repertoire of various machetes, knives, and a motorcycle-mounted Gatling gun. With Machete, Grindhouse immedately throws us head-first into the world of political incorrect exploitation on the level of old blacksploitation pics, featuring excessive violence, abundant female nudity, and questionable morality.
It leads in to our first movie, Planet Terror, directed by Rodriquez, which is about a group of folks from a small Texas town forced to deal with a plague of crazed zombie maniacs, caused by secret biological warfare testing at a nearby army base. Our heros consist of stripper Cherry (Rose McGowan) who quits dancing to become a stand-up comedian, only to lose her leg in a zombie attack. Enter her mysterious boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodríguez), who hides a secret (lost in one of those missing reels). Together, with a group of other colorful characters (including Michael Biehn, Tom Savini, and Michael Parks – reprising his Kill Bill role as Earl McGraw), they band together to fight off both the infected zombies and the leader of an infected military unit, headed by Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis). It’s definitely influenced by Fulci’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombi) – one scene of a wood shard in the eye seems lifted straight from that movie – and it throws a lot of I-can’t-believe-they-showed-that moments into the mix. One of the characters is an English businessman fond of collecting the testicles of his enemies; another infected soldier (played by Tarantino) intends to rape a female victim with his private parts, um, dripping down in globs of goo. There’s an insane doctor (wonderfully played by Josh Brolin), various cringe-inducing moments involving expoding pustules, zombie-decapitation by helicopter blades (see Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), and perhaps the best part – Rose McGowan’s new leg-stump machine gun attachment (see Evil Dead II for a similar theme).
Her legs are smokin’
It’s all tongue-in-cheek, which makes it quite enjoyable. Only one scene of a child accidentally shooting himself doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the proceedings, and I could have done without Tarantino sticking his face into the camera again. His acting ability, while not as bad as other suggest, isn’t really the issue so much as it is a distraction of seeing a self-indulgent egomaniac take us out of the fantasy world that Rodriguez has built up for us. No matter – Planet Terror is still an enjoyable offering, despite the fact that I can’t really recall Zombi or Dawn of the Dead being this crazed. (I would call From Dusk Till Dawn a closer relative).
The trailers in the middle of the film happen to be the best part of Grindhouse, the most entertaining being a takeoff on all those Don’t pictures of the late 70s/early 80s. You know – Don’t Open the Window, Don’t Go In The Woods, Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Look in the Basement, etc. Directed by Edgar Wright, it’s aptly titled Don’t. The second best faux trailer would be Thanksgiving, which brings to mind all the exploitative holiday slashers (Mother’s Day, Silent Night Deadly Night, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine). Eli Roth directed it and it has an old grainy effect that reminded me of Pieces or maybe Maniac. It also has the funniest one liners (White Meat… Dark Meat… all will be carved!) It’s offensive and gory, and thus comes the closest to the feel of the retro-slashers that just didn’t give a damn about anything. The worst trailer is Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S., a spoof of the Ilsa movies. It’s amusing, I suppose, with welcome appearances from the great Udo Kier and a surprise guest playing Fu Manchu (I won’t tell), but it’s not as inspired as it thinks it is. Finally, out of nowhere, we’re treated to a commercial for a Tex-Mex restaurant (Right next to this theater!)
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is the weakest of the pair, and the irony of it is that it’s probably the most thoughtful and deconstructive. Kurt Russell plays a stuntman car driver named simply Stuntman Mike, and he’s absolutely brilliant. It’s too bad that his character takes a backseat to two groups of rather uninteresting female protagonists. It starts out with prolonged scenes of dialogue between a group of Austin girls including local DJ Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd). Most of it takes place in a bar and it’s set up to introduce both the girls and the Stuntman Mike character, who is mysterious, charming, and very very dangerous. There are two good scenes involving Mike’s car (1971 Chevy Nova, Death-Proofed because it’s used as a stunt car), the later scene being shown from four different angles (each from the point of view of a certain character). Then there’s a new setup involving a new group of girls including Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), and Zoe Bell (playing herself). These are characters with a stronger will (although just as banal) who end up in a road duel with Mike using a 1970 Dodge Challenger (apparently the same one from Vanishing Point).
chicks love the car
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that I see Death Proof as a rape-revenge/female empowerment fantasy, with rapist (Mike) using his metaphorical tool (souped up muscle car), only to have the tables turned on him as he is emasculated by women stronger than he is. It is sly commentary on films like Vanishing Point (a superior film), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (both mentioned a few times in the movie) , Duel (another superior film), Faster Pussycat Kill!..kill!, and if you want to get more abstract, perhaps I Spit On Your Grave. The underlying themes in Death Proof are smart, no doubt about it, which is why I was so disappointed with his female characters. Their scenes of dialogue are absolutely interminable and had me checking my watch a few times. Nothing about them was particularly interesting, and nothing they said was anything approaching the level of dialogue in Tarantino’s earlier movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. If I felt bad for Mike in the end, it wasn’t because he isn’t evil enough but because the girls aren’t likable enough. (Only Zoe Bell, playing a heroic stuntwoman – who in real life is a stuntwoman – makes it through as likable, sexy, and spunky, if perhaps way too bubbly given the situation at hand) while Tracie Thoms’ bad-ass black woman character (modeled off Pam Grier’s Coffy/Foxy Brown heroines) with her lines laced with motha-fucka comes off as trying-too-hard and, well, annoying. When you get right down to it, I shouldn’t be watching an extended chase scene with Bell in peril on the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger and wondering just why in the hell the driver Kim doesn’t just pull off the side of the road. Is it really a good idea to leave Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s naive character Lee, dressed in a cheerleader outfit, alone with a total stranger making him think he’s going to get some? (That particular plot point is strangely abandoned). Not to mention that the much talked about lapdance scene (even shown in the Grindhouse trailers) is yanked just to deliver a Missing Reel joke, which works in Planet Terror but does not work here. The ending of Death Proof is enjoyable, I suppose, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing came off as a self-indulgent masturbatory QT session made only for his own amusement.
The strange thing is that while Planet Terror is pretty much Rodriguez copying the cheesy zombie movie aesthetic, he managed to create likable characters, despite the knowledge that they are simple archetypes, and I could easily see myself watching it again in the future. While Death Proof is a smarter deconstruction of the grind house films of an earlier era, the only character interesting in any sort of way is the villain, with the tense road scenes buried by an avalanche of banality. I can’t see myself going back to it, but I can see myself returning to its influences instead. I was afraid that the QT train was starting to run off the rails with the Kill Bill movies. Death Proof just confirmed my suspicions. (At least we know how Snake Plissken got the eye patch). Now, if somebody actually makes Machete all will be forgiven. (Update: All is forgiven – the actually made Machete).