How many times have we seen an expensive blockbuster film and come away feeling depressed and robbed? With 1970s exploitation films, they may have been schlock, but they delivered. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who have had enough successes that the Weinsteins will let them do whatever they want (under $60 million), maniacs that they are, have delivered three hours of total chaos in a double-feature called Grindhouse .
The old downtown movie theaters were called "grindhouses" because they churned out one disreputable film after another to survive. You got your blaxploitation films, your Asian chop-socky, your spaghetti westerns, your knife-wielding giallos, and your Italian zombie pictures. The prints were usually chewed up by the projectors, riddled with scratches, bad splices, and sometimes whole missing reels. Sometimes the projectionist, if he liked a sex scene, would simply chop it out and take it home.
QT and RR’s Grindhouse recaptures that experience flawlessly. It’s an extravaganza: two 85 minute movies separated by vintage managerial announcements and fake trailers. One of those trailers, directed by Eli Roth, has a couple of images so shocking and disgusting you can’t believe what you just saw. "Over the top" doesn’t begin to cover it. And it’s hilarious.
The Rodriguez installment, Planet Terror , isn’t a zombie movie. These guys deal not in genres, but in sub-genres. This is an infected people zombie movie, thank you very much. You got your blissfully clichéd dialog; intentional lapses of continuity; characters who behave in utterly irrational ways; and about as much violence and gore as can be shoehorned into an R rating. And by now you probably know the movie’s got stripper Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), her leg removed by zombies and replaced by her boyfriend with a rocket-launching machine gun. "I was gonna be a stand up comedienne," she cries. "Who’s gonna laugh now?" We are, of course.
Planet Terror is not as accomplished as Rodriguez’s Sin City ; but it’s like a jambalaya, where at some point it no longer matters what you throw in the pot. But Tarantino’s entry, Death Proof , is some of his most wicked work. He even shot it himself. It isn’t schlock, not at all; that purr you hear isn’t the motor of a muscle car, it’s coming from the throat of a leopard.
In a laid-back Texas bar filled with sexy young women doing shots and getting high comes Stuntman Mike. He is embodied by Kurt Russell, and wears the mantle of every action role Russell has ever played. His whole being is scar tissue. Nobody ever knows the name of a stuntman – but none of these girls have even heard of the films Stuntman Mike’s been in. And that’s a killing offense.
Like ’70s classics such as Vanishing Point , some of which are actually high art, Tarantino brings your blood to a boil with honest-to-god dangerous driving and death-defying stunts. So much more than it appears to be, Death Proof is doing things to you, and it leaves you elated and begging for mercy. It is also a conscious rebuke to the antiseptic CGI vehicles clogging the movie highway. Listen to what Stuntman Mike has to say about those.
And it becomes clear that with all the bloody crashes and liquefying zombie splatter, the real subject of Grindhouse is women, glorious women; and no misogyny goes unpunished. Cherry Darling’s fetishized leg, or the way young women are with each other when there are no men around, or the vicious glee with which they fight back, crackle like heat lightning. You get your money’s worth, all right. What a blast.
This and other theater and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at WFIU.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.