They say the 70’s was the best decade for cinema, the decade where masses of people flocked to films which were major artistic achievements that made statements about society and were loved by critics and audiences alike. Some movies of the decade that usually come to mind are The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and A Clockwork Orange. In the world of Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez and likely many other more proletariat minds however the 70’s were more about movies like Vanishing Point, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I Spit on Your Grave and other sleazy exploitation films of that decade that would play as double and triple features at low rent theaters called Grindhouses. It is this film going experience that inspired Tarentino and Rodriguez to work together to make their new film Grindhouse.
Grindhouse is a throwback to the double feature, consisting of two 85 minute feature films with similarly styled trailers to other non-existent grindhouse movies between the two. It begins with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a zombie movie that goes above and beyond “over the top.” In Planet Terror a typical zombie infestation is spreading through a rural Texas community. This zombie takeover is seen from the perspective of an eclectic group of individuals throughout the town that are immune to the spread of the zombie virus. Some of these heroes include a hard boiled fighter (Freddy Rodríguez) his ex-girlfriend, a go-go dancer with a heart of gold (Rose McGowan,) a doctor who treats her after she suffers an injury (Josh Brolin), his estranged wife (Marley Shelton,) and a sheriff trying to fight the zombies (Michael Biehn.) There are many other characters throughout this first film, their stories all initially seem unrelated, but as the film progresses they all meet up and form a posse of sorts.
The zombies in the movie have incredibly gory make-up, their faces are constantly bubbling up and bursting. Planet Terror is definitely the more violent of the two movies in Grindhouse, in fact it rarely goes five minutes without having a zombie or human killed in an incredibly graphic way. The film really doesn’t make all that much narrative sense, the characters are two dimensional, and almost everyone over acts. All this is of course done to re-create the sleazy aesthetic of the movies it’s recreating. The film, like its 70’s predecessors, is all about escapism and in fact it’s a blast. The film excellently manages to run by quickly and continues to provide interesting and quirky moments and images.
The second film is Quentin Tarentino’s Death Proof, is being billed as a slasher movie, but it’s actually more of a cross between car chase movies and Russ Meyer’s empowering sexploitation. The film deals with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) a former stuntman who uses his heavily re-enforced “death proof” stunt car to cause car accidents and murder young women he’s been stalking. The first half of this film deals with Mike’s dealings with a group of young friends that ends with a massive climactic car crash. The second half deals with Mike’s attempt to stalk another group of young women which ends in a massive care chase.
Death Proof is a much less violent film then Planet Terror, it is more relaxed and a little bit lighter. The film is probably more like what actual grindhouse movies would have been. The film fully employs Quentin Tarantino’s signature dialogue, which is probably its best aspect. Kurt Russell is awesome here as a horror heavy, it’s a shame we don’t see him in more movies. Stuntman Mike’s young victims also do everything they need to with their roles and appropriately act in a stylized way that is reminiscent of the leading ladies in the films this film is trying to emulate.
Grindhouse is trying as hard as it can to recreate the grindhouse experience. It isn’t trying to be a time capsule, the films take place in modern times and have significantly higher budgets then anything that would have been in a real grindhouse, but the film does have highly retro sensibilities. Like the films that played in 70’s grindhouses, the films here are filled with print flaws. The print flaws are oddly not distributed evenly, Death Proof has odd reel changes but mostly uses print flaws sparingly, while Planet Terror occasionally looks like it’s print has been repeatedly dragged through the street. The films go so far as to include missing reels, a practice that was never actually a common trait in grindhouses.
The film comes with an assortment of fake trailers, the best of them is the first one, the Robert Rodriguez directed Machete, is a take on Death Wish style revenge movies. This trailer most seems like it could make a full movie, and its plot is oddly similar to the recent Mark Wahlberg thriller Shooter. The Rob Zombie directed trailer, Werewolf Women of the SS, easily has the most inspired concept and title, it also has a hilarious cameo at the end, but it also looks less retro then many of the other trailers. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Eli Roth’s trailer Thanksgiving, a take on highly low budget rip-offs of John Carpenter’s Halloween. This trailer, more so than anything else in all of Grindhouse, looks like an actual artifact of the 70’s, it also has some of the sickest killings. Edgar Wright’s trailer is defiantly the least memorable, but it isn’t without its charms.
One of the interesting things about Grindhouse is that it clearly shows the strengths and weaknesses of the two directors. Tarentino is a genius of film dialogue and his movie excellently manages to build tension and make its subjects interesting. Rodriguez is not as well versed in dialogue and generally has to fall back on violence and gore to entertain. Planet Terror is the fastest and most audacious, but also more calculated and generally has less soul. Death Proof is ultimately a better movie, it more accurately recreates the movies that inspired it and is generally a more mature and more coherent work. Though I like Death Proof more, the difference in quality really is marginal, the movies really are just different sides of the dame coin.
Grindhouse is what it is, a genre celebration filled with homage and in jokes. It exists only because other movies exist for it to reference. One could argue that this is all any of Quentin Tarentino’s films have done; Tarentino’s other films however have much better developed characters and storylines and generally amount to much more. At the end of the day Grindhouse isn’t for everybody, but it is a very fun, and often humorous movie. To call it bad for its hollowness and cheesiness is to miss the point and to call it some sort of brilliant masterpiece is just as wrong. It is simply a very fun work of kitsch that abandons pretensions in order to provide hours of escapism, which is exactly what people went into 70’s grindhouses to get.
*** out of four