“Grindhouse” is a minor cinematic event. More of an overall theater-going experience than merely a movie, writer/directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez pay tribute to an exploitative style of filmmaking that is long dead with a double feature that is literally exploding with the dead.
All told, “Grindhouse” is three hours and fifteen minutes of hyper-fast car chases, buckets of blood and guts, psychopathic killers, pus-dripping zombies, and a mini-skirted amputee with a machine gun leg. These are the kinds of things that would be perfectly at home in the low-rent big city theaters and the rural drive-ins of the 1970s.
The low budget independent films they are paying homage to were full of twisted imagination, but mostly fell short of actually delivering on the promise of their highly titillating ad campaigns. Tarantino and Rodriguez deliver the goods, offering not one sensationalistic movie, but two—“Planet Terror” and “Death Proof.” They then pepper the entire experience with fake trailers, scratched prints, missing reels, and assorted vintage announcements for authenticity.
Not only were the directors smart enough to take on different genres for this lengthy double bill, but the movies are programmed in the perfect order for maximum viewing excitement. “Planet Terror” is first up, and although Rodriguez won’t win any points for clear plotting and exposition, he makes up for in the sheer density of violence and mayhem. A stripper named Cherry (Rose McGowan) and her mysterious ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) find themselves in a zombie apocalypse, fighting with a small band of people who are unaffected by a gooey virus.
The “Planet Terror” strategy is simple. Rip the entrails out of these old films, and throw as much as you can at the wall to see what sticks. It mostly works, except that when you are being constantly bludgeoned with gags for an hour and a half, sometimes you need a little room to breathe. Rodriguez, known for having a loyal independent production team, also pulls off special effects that are way more impressive than any exploitation filmmaker could have afforded. His movie has more in common with the mid-level action films of the 1980s than the low budget aesthetics of a disturbing horror flick like “The Last House on the Left.”
The reason that grindhouse movie trailers are so much fun is because they cram all the salacious bits into a three-minute thrill ride. Rodriguez, intent on stretching those three minutes out to a feature length, employs the more-is-better tactic. Between the two features, three fake movie previews get it done quicker. Because they are so short and chock full of ideas that would never pan out in a feature-length movie, these very specific homages are often shocking and hilarious.
Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) pokes fun at trailers that were designed to disguise their movies’ overseas origins with a very funny clip called “Don’t,” in which none of the actors actually speak. Eli Roth (“Hostel”) straddles the knife’s edge between really campy and really shocking (his clip had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating) in his grimy, dead-on parody of holiday-themed horror, “Thanksgiving.” Rob Zombie’s fake preview for “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” is all about cameos and inappropriate Nazi imagery. All three serve as quick blasts of ridiculous fun before getting into the Tarantino feature “Death Proof.”
Tarantino has always been good at unusually perfect casting, so it’s no surprise to see John Carpenter stalwart Kurt Russell (“The Thing,” “Escape From New York”) in the lead role as Stuntman Mike, a killer with a weapon that’s fairly unique to slasher films—his souped-up stunt car. “Death Proof” is an entirely different beast than “Planet Terror.” It has a slow, methodical buildup that’s way more reminiscent of exploitation movies than the Rodriguez feature. His fetishes—obscure music and movie references and talky dialogue—are on full display again, and feel right at home in this genre.
Stylistically, he is having a ball. Scenes are colored differently right in the middle, as if the reels had just changed. Action doesn’t always match up in reverse shots, while others are just poorly framed. The slower pace of “Death Proof” may alienate those wowed by Rodriguez’s breakneck violence, but the eventual payoff is huge. Tarantino is a master of mood and suspense, and exerts total control over the audience, starting his film as a misogynistic ambush, but ending it on a completely different note.
“Death Proof” doesn’t exactly redefine the slasher movie genre, but it certainly resists certain expectations, and in gloriously entertaining fashion. Dread builds as Tarantino’s movie lives up to these stereotypes and then completely thwarts them. Like he does with all his films, Tarantino has created something fresh out of many used parts. “Death Proof” may have less total laughs and scares than “Planet Terror,” but the execution of the story ensures that those moments are ultimately bigger and better.
Zoë Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the “Kill Bill” movies, and here she plays herself. It is just one self-reflexive nod in a movie filled with them. Both Roth and Tarantino show up as actors (Why, Quentin, why?), Michael Parks plays the same sheriff in this double feature that he played in “Kill Bill,” and alert viewers will catch a reference to the Big Kahuna burger of “Pulp Fiction.” Both directors have also set their films in the same fictional universe, although they are chronologically out of order.
Taken as a whole, “Grindhouse” is a deliriously entertaining night out at the theater. This is one movie that absolutely won’t have the same impact at home. Any film fan should appreciate this messy tribute that takes itself no more seriously than it should. For those who thought the pompous and humorless attitude of “300” was out of whack with the cartoonish violence and sheer audacity displayed onscreen, “Grindhouse” is a nostalgic reminder that cinema can give you the guilty pleasures you crave so much without the bad aftertaste.