“These guys got the devil in them”
A double-bill, Rodriguez and Tarantino—two of the most entertaining directors working today—faux trailers, and a 70’s pulp aesthetic…can a movie of this magnitude ever live up to the almost Godlike expectations for it? Generally there is no way the real thing can meet the hype, but with the amount of talent and creativity involved here, how could Grindhouse be anything but a masterpiece? Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino know their genres and are never afraid to mix in a little violence or camp to spice up their art. We have the master of innovation and craft (what film by Rodriguez doesn’t contain his name in the credits at least ten times?) and the genius of words and film history chic (Tarantino could sell a film even he it contained two people in a room talking for two hours with a look matching the best of any past stylistic mode). It feels like Christmas when you can get a film by either director in a given year, but when you put them together for an all-out blitz on the senses you get the most entertaining theatre-going experience in years.
Overall the film was technically perfect. These guys set out to recreate the grindhouse experience of yesteryear with their pulp films going back to back complete with old-school advertisements, titlecards, and trailers for even more outrageous genre flicks as an intermission. Each segment was aged in post-production to make it look as though the film was thrown around and lost for the past thirty years, slowly decomposing in unsafe archiving conditions. The scratches and the film speed errors are a work of art in themselves as they never get distracting or go overboard, but instead look like normal decay for a no-budget, B-movie of this sort. Each had its moments, but I will give the edge to Rodriguez on effectiveness and seamless integration. While Tarantino succeeded with his moments of hitches/rewinded replayed seconds, his use of the “missing reel” ended up feeling like a gimmick rather than a reality. It was just a way for him to not show us a moment that had been building up for a while with the scene previous ending smoothly and the scene after starting right up. Rodriguez, on-the-other-hand, played it cool by burning the filmstock right before the moment of lost material. Rather than the reel being missing, it made it seem destroyed; the cut from the card to a burning building brings laughter at missing a key plot point instead of disappointment from being unable to watch what could have been a crucial motivating factor for what the killer does next in Tarantino’s half.
As for the films themselves, we are treated to two distinct genres, the zombie/horror and the slasher/thriller. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror truly brought back the spirit and look of an old camp-infused shocker. We have a government-involved release of a toxin, which kills and then brings back to life those exposed, making them hunger live flesh. We have the hard-edged sheriff (played to perfection by the underused Michael Biehn), the token victims (Nicky Katt is hilarious as the hospital’s first exposure to the epidemic), the supporting players (a nice intercut storyline with the gorgeous Marley Shelton and her husband Josh Brolin who really got the mood of his character and hit it out of the park—loved the thermometer), and our protagonists doing whatever it takes in the name of love to survive (a rediscovered Rose McGowan—who is great both here and in Tarantino’s part, showing some real emotion in the midst of absurd character evolution—and probably the best acting in the whole piece from Freddy Rodriguez). We get blood and goo, face-melting, limb-chopping, flesh-eating, blood filled balloon people splattering against windshields and survivors as they are mowed down, and a genital obsessed Naveen Andrews with the best comic relief of the night. There is gore, there is sex, and there are scares mixed with laugh-out-loud craziness. Robert Rodriguez knew what he was doing and he upped the ante wherever he could, making Planet Terror a flawless piece of cinema trash.
As for Tarantino’s Death Proof, I was ready to be amazed. The credit sequence was fabulous as the titles overlaid static motion shots, looking out the windshield of a car, a woman’s feet on the dashboard. This was looking to be pure 70’s and I couldn’t wait to get going. We are introduced to a trio of women out cruising the bar scene, talking about sex and love and whatever else, naturally and realistically, when we get the foreboding glimpse of the deathproof car, complete with skull and crossbones. The tension rises when the killer is finally introduced and the dialogue is sharp, witty, and twisted in just the right way. Credit Tarantino for giving us one of the best driving sequences ever as the car holding the girls (playing air-drums to a classic rock diamond in the rough) rapidly moves into a confrontation with the killer’s vehicular weapon. The words between our killer, delivered with perfect matter-of-factness by Kurt Russell to Rose McGowan, is worth seeing the film segment as a whole, not to mention the multi-angle crash coming next. My adrenaline was up, carnage was fresh on the screen, and it was time for act two to bring the level up even more.
Unfortunately this is where Death Proof falls apart. All the build up we just experienced ends up resetting as we go through the motions again: a new group of women driving and talking, eventually to meet up with our killer. This sequence might have been better than the first, except it never got the chance because all I could think was “didn’t I just sit through this a moment ago?” Granted, the final car chase is amazing, two cars playing out the roles of killer and victim running from each other, and losing each other along the way, like any of the best slasher films, however, I was bored to tears by the monotonous set-up, having to sit through another set of women being introduced. How can it be effective if after finally seeing some action from an amazing Russell performance, we don’t get to see him for the next thirty minutes? All the suspense is gone by the time he comes back, and I found myself not quite caring anymore (Although Russell does up the camp, when the tables are turned, at the finish for some brilliant laughs). Also, mention needs to be made about Zoe Bell’s performance. While a bit stilted, she was fantastic having never acted before. Having a stuntwoman be the actress was a great choice because the car chase would have been nothing without the camera never leaving her as she held on for dear life on the hood of the car.
So, overall, the experience at the Grindhouse was fantastic. Rodriguez was on fire with both Planet Terror and his faux trailer Machete, (I can’t wait for that one if the rumors are true and a film will be made from the footage), and Tarantino knew the score if he didn’t quite know how to pace his piece correctly. The acting is top-notch, displaying some talent in roles that would have been filled by no-name D-list actors during the real era that is being harkened back to. I even loved the fact that characters reoccurred throughout, even if that gimmick went a bit too far having Biehn’s and Jordan Ladd’s roles reprised in the trailers as well. As for those trailers: pure unadulterated fun. Rob Zombie and Eli Roth did fantastic jobs at putting the craziest ideas they had on screen knowing they didn’t have to coherently put them together, as trailers just show disparate glimpses anyways. Biggest laughs of the night, though, go to Edgar Wright and his trailer for Don’t. It was hilarious and I loved the cameo by Wright regular Nick Frost—priceless. These guys have whet my appetite for more double-bill goodness, and hopefully Rodriguez and Tarantino will live up to the speculation and do a Grindhouse every few years or so.
Planet Terror 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★; Death Proof 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
Grindhouse 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
Also, did Mary Elizabeth Winstead seriously vocalize the word “gulp” in her last moment onscreen? Loved it. Tarantino wrote her role perfectly and she played the dimwitted, beautiful looks/no brain actress to a T. I really wish there would have been more of her in the film to balance out the macho-chick empowerment bent that seemed a bit too heavy-handed in the final piece of Death Proof. Oh, and Nic Cage is the man.
 Rose McGowan in Planet Terror – Grindhouse 2007
 Rose McGowan (Pam) and Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike) star in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (Grind House). Photo by: Andrew Cooper. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.