Step right up for two movies for the price of one: Death Proof, directed and written by Quentin (Pulp Fiction) Tarantino, and Planet Terror, directed and written by Robert (Sin City) Rodriguez. It’s no sucker punch. Tarantino and Rodriguez rock it. Grindhouse is a double dose of lowdown, dirty, blood-splattering fun that pummels you with sluts, slashers, serial killers, zombies and killer cars that all serve to reveal a soul of the purest scuzz. There is not a minute in this three-hour-plus tribute to all that’s unholy in cinema that is good for you. And that includes trailers (placed ahead of and between the two features) for a quartet of movies – Thanksgiving, Machete, Don’t and Werewolf Women of the S.S. – that have yet to be made but make you weep for joy at the prospect. Hostel‘s Eli Roth directed the trailer for Thanksgiving, a horror flick for the only holiday not yet slimed. As screams fill the air, a voice promises, “White meat! Dark meat! All will be carved!”
How do you resist that? My advice is, you don’t. Tarantino and Rodriguez are in love with (make that in heat for) the cheap exploitation flicks that filled the crummy grindhouse theaters on Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard in the 1960s and 1970s. They simulate scratches, sound pops, even missing scenes (what happened to that lap dance?) to make you feel you’re watching a movie battered by time. And they don’t skimp on the sex and violence. Every politico who wants to win votes by hating on Hollywood for corrupting youth will have a field day with Grindhouse. Are Tarantino and Rodriguez really that irresponsible? You bet. As the late critic Pauline Kael famously stated, “Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.” You can almost hear Tarantino and Rodriguez yelling, “Amen, sister!” as they defy studio formula to recall what was primitive, primal and thrillingly alive in movie trash. “Movies are so rarely great art,” Kael wrote, “that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Grindhouse is great trash, and something more. It’s the war cry of two rebels (my kind of wild hogs) out to restore rude, crude vitality to a cookie-cutter film industry run by corporate zombies.
Rodriguez’s Planet Terror kicks off first, with Rose McGowan pole-dancing as the camera moves in to catch an ambiguous tear in her eye. Nice start. McGowan is dynamite as Cherry Darling, a stripper who dreams of being a stand-up comedian. But before the night is over in this Texas town, Cherry won’t be able to stand up, since one of her shapely stems gets gnawed off by zombies. Actually, these creatures are victims of government chemical experiments led by Bruce Willis, in Army drag, and his henchman (Tarantino), who finds Cherry’s lack of a leg no detriment to rape (“Easier access”). Luckily, Cherry’s true love, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), fixes her up with a machine-gun limb that’s a go-go weapon of mass destruction.
It’s quite a night. At the local hospital, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) finds her plan to run off with her lesbian lover (Stacy Ferguson, Fergie to you) foiled by her evil medico husband (Josh Brolin).
I’ve already said too much. The kick is watching Rodriguez (serving as his own director of photography, as does Tarantino) try to top himself with gross-outs. Of course he goes too far. Eye gougings are one thing, but a jar of human testicles? Rodriguez, shooting digitally, keeps his camera on the run, and you can feel him flying from the sheer glee of it. Except for the iconic image of the gun-legged Cherry, Planet Terror doesn’t stick to the wall dramatically. But it sure as hell keeps you hanging on for the ride.
Tarantino’s Death Proof is exploitation of a different sort. While Rodriguez revels in grindhouse, Tarantino salutes and subverts it. In Act One, a muscle car is driven by a serial killer – that would be Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike – who uses his “death-proof” vehicle to destroy the dreams and lives of a group of women friends. In Act Two, he gears up to destroy four more women, who decide they’re not going to play victim. That’s it. But with Tarantino you know that’s never it. He spends as much time developing his characters as he does his stunts, though the film ends with a doozy of a car chase that sets a new gold standard. And look, ma, no computers!
Death Proof bubbles over with rich, juicy chunks of Quentinese, a Niagara of bravado, camaraderie, sex talk, pop-culture references and aching vulnerability. His first image is feet, a Tarantino specialty. The ten painted toes hanging out a car window belong to Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of the acting legend. As Jungle Julia, a DJ in Austin, Texas, Poitier shows rare gifts. But she and her girls (Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito) are unprepared for Stuntman Mike. You may be, too, since Russell, starting with a slow hand of lethal charm that escalates to battering-ram berserk, hasn’t been this killer-good since his days as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York.
vie references pepper the film, especially the Dodge Challenger from 1971’s Vanishing Point. It’s the Challenger that brings four women together in the film’s second half. Zoe Bell, a New Zealand stuntwoman (she doubled Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s Kill Bill), is in Tennessee on a movie gig. After seeing a for-sale ad, Zoe (a truly infectious spirit) rounds up her friends, a makeup artist (sassy Rosario Dawson), an actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and fellow daredevil Kim (ghetto-fab Tracie Thoms) and heads for the hills to test-drive the Challenger. That means strapping herself to the hood while Kim revs it up on deserted roads.
Deserted, that is, except for Stuntman Mike. From the moment these sisters decide to do it for themselves and tap Mike’s ass with their own heavy metal, Death Proof holds you in a grip that won’t let go. Tarantino stages the chase with an immediacy that makes you feel every whiplash turn. But it’s the characters, so artfully written and acted, who make you care. That’s right, care – pretty much a no-no in this allegedly disposable genre. In Death Proof, Tarantino sticks it to the naysayers who dis him and Rodriguez as movie brats smoking a budget of $50 million (some reports double that) to get off on their own adolescent wet dreams. As Cherry might say, double fuck to that. I don’t feel guilty about calling Grindhouse a pleasure. By stooping low without selling out, this babes-and-bullets tour de force gets you high on movies again.