Back in the day (and by “day,” I mean the early to mid 70s) films (and by “films” I mean movies) were made on a shoestring and a prayer. Sure, there was art being made at the time, but the real developments were happening in the independent world with people like George Romero, Tom Savini, and John Landis. These were the guys who were getting images onto the screen at the local movie houses and drive-ins by sheer will power alone.
And these are the guys being paid homage in the new cinema spectacular Grindhouse from powerhouse directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Grindhouse takes its name from the old movie slums where two low budget, well worn fright fests and a handful of trailers for more of the same could be had for one low price and Tarantino and Rodriguez are doing their best to duplicate the experience, starting with the double feature.
Each director wrote and shot their own film, filled with all the tropes and conventions of the films they grew up watching. For Rodriguez, the result is Planet Terror, a zombie movie filled with everything you’d want from a film who’s primary villains are puss filled walking dead. Planet Terror really captures the essence of the genre. Rodriguez really took the time to remember what it was about the old zombie movies that scared and grossed him out and then translated that into a modern version. He was able to keep the feel of the low budget, complete with scratchy prints, missing reels (at wildly inappropriate times), babes, bikes and bullets. He gives us Freddy Rodriguez (no relation) and Rose McGowan as once and future lovers who will have to reunite and overcome their past in order to save the world from imminent destruction and he gives us a script filled with unselfconsciously bad dialogue which makes us laugh as we turn away from the disgusting visuals. And he does it all with a straight face. There is no mocking of the characters or situations here. When McGowan’s Cherry, who wants to be a stand-up comic, bemoans her fate after losing a leg to the flesh eating baddies, El Wray (Rodriguez) quips that “some of the best jokes are about cripples.” And as an audience, you are right there, in the moment. Director Rodriguez is able to make us care about secondary characters in a way the films on which this is based never could. He stretches his talent over a new framework and it fits nicely.
Tarantino, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well. His leap into the Grindhouse is Death Proof, a revenge thriller parody that seems to hit more of the Tarantino motifs than anything else. Let’s see… Strong black women? Check. Hip, pop culture references? Check. Excessive use of racial epithets in search of coolness? Check. Great soundtrack? Of course. An enticing plot which follows any type of logical structure and pays off in the end? Not so much. Sure, Kurt Russell is hammier than a New York Deli during Passover, but even he seems to be wondering why he’s there at times. He’s a killer who thinks nothing of running his reinforced car head-on into his victim’s car and yet cries like a baby when he gets shot (it’s not a spoiler, you can see it coming a mile away). As for the victims, in true Quentin style, they are all young, gorgeous women (including McGowan who does double duty appearing in this film as well) and are all defined through their sexuality (with the one exception of Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who plays herself). Does this mean it’s not entertaining? Nope. It’s entertaining as hell. You’ll find yourself cheering and jeering at all the appropriate places, but it doesn’t accomplish what Planet Terror does. It only superficially hits the 70s aesthetic that Terror gets to easily. In the end Death Proof is a Tarantino film, and a fun one, but no more than that.
But those two films are not the only thing Grindhouse has to offer. Nope. Like all cinema going experiences, we also get trailers for upcoming films like Machete, Werewolf Women of the S.S., and with the most disturbing 35 frames seen in the last ten years, Thanksgiving (made by Hostel’s Eli Roth). Each of these films are viable sequels for Grindhouse and if they do get made, I will be first in line to see ’em.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)