by Steve Habrat
It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.
The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.
Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.
Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.
In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.
Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.
Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.