The Grindhouse was a sub-genre of exploitation films that were generally deemed too extreme and cheap for the mainstream, and there wasn’t much genre segregation with regards to what got heaped into this pile. The only qualifications were that it had to be strange, violent and of poor quality. Everything from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ ‘pioneering’ horror films to the incomprehensible works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, from Italian zombie/cannibal films to Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee Kung-fu movies, were included in this designation. The Grindhouse made up its own little cottage industry of midnight screenings and Drive-In fare from the late `60s through the `70s, and managed to generate a small, but rabid fan base.
But as slicker productions became cheaper and more widely available to the moviegoer, the kitschy quality of Grindhouse films became more of a novelty, and the genre eventually died out. However, two of Hollywood’s most vocal B-movie junkies, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, have put together an homage to those long lost glory days of irreverent violence, crude sexuality and pawn shop film stock with the eponymously titled “Grindhouse.” Constructed as a classic Drive-In double feature, “Grindhouse” is actually two distinct movies strung together by a few hilariously appropriate but fake movie trailers.
Directed by Rodriguez, “Planet Terror” is reminiscent of a John Carpenter film, from the music to the subject to the presentation. A kind of mishmash of “Escape From New York” and “The Fog”, with little bits of “The Return of the Living Dead” and “Maximum Overdrive” thrown in for good measure, “Planet Terror” concerns a military experiment gone wrong in a sleazy Texas town, resulting in the release of noxious gas that turns everyone into oozing, brain gobbling zombies.
A small group of survivors, led by a Kungï·“fu rebel tow truck driver named El Wray (played by Lou Diamond Phillips look-a-like Freddy Rodriguez) and a down-and-out Go-Go dancer with a machine gun leg named Cherry (Rose McGowan, looking quite fetching now that she’s no longer associated with Marilyn Manson), bands together to fight off the zombies and the military before making it to safety in Mexico.
Violent, gross and black comedy funny, “Planet Terror” hits all the right notes. Littered with Hollywood rejects and genre mainstays like Tom Savini, Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, Rodriguez’s segment almost perfectly captures the look and feel of those Cold War era horror flicks we grew up with.
Tarantino’s segment is a more conventional slasher flick, sort of a mix of Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” and “The Hitcher” (the original, not the crappy remake). The film concerns the dastardly doings of the fast talking Stuntman Mike (an appropriately grizzled Kurt Russell) as he stalks pretty girls in his ‘death proof’ 1971 Chevy Nova stunt car. Only this time he picks the wrong group of girls. “Death Proof” begins in signature Tarantino style, with the principle hotties blabbering on endlessly about pop culture references and obscure movies. It’s actually a bit boring till Stuntman Mike swings into action. The result is one of the most intense car chases you’ve likely seen in the last decade worth of movies.
But unlike its aforementioned predecessors, “Death Proof” has a lovely vein of comedy running through it, with an abrupt, unexpected ending that left me in stitches. Russell is wonderful as the psychotic loser and thrill junky, with his silver Icy Hot jacket and stories of almost glory as a stunt double for everyone in the industry.
So which is better? Well, I’d have to go with “Planet Terror” for the gore, McGowans’s leg(s) and the overall audacity. By contrast, “Death Proof” seems unfinished, and there was too much talking.
Oddly enough, the two main features aren’t even the best part of “Grindhouse.” Rather, it’s the fake movie trailers that are the highlight. Directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright (“Shaun Of The Dead”) and Eli Roth (“Hostel”), the trailers for sleazy action and horror films are spot-on for the look and feel of the Grindhouse era that the main features are trying to invoke. Chock full of gratuitous gore, unbalanced sound, extreme zooms and hilarious cameos by Cheech Marin, Nicholas Cage and Udo Kier, the fake trailers are a laugh a minute.
Given what it is, it’s hard to find fault with “Grindhouse.” Both directors manage to sustain the historical essence of the genre in their respective features, as well as in the overall product. The irreverent assault on the audience’s sensibilities with the extreme violence, aberrant sexuality and seedy subject matter is kept gleefully light hearted. There are also no half-assed attempts to justify or humanize anything or anyone on screen, something which ruined Rob Zombie’s own Grindhouse effort, “The Devil’s Rejects”.
“Grindhouse” exists for no other reason than to entertain, providing mindless escapism to the casual viewer as well as the knowing wink and nod to die hard film junkies. It is a movie that is more than the sum of its parts.
Robert Rodriguez (segment “Planet Terror”) (fake trailer segment “Machete”), Eli Roth (fake trailer segment “Thanksgiving”), Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”), Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment “Don’t Scream”), Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”) (director) / Robert Rodriguez (segment “Planet Terror”), Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”) screenplay
CAST: Rose McGowan … Cherry (segment “Planet Terror”)/Pam (segment “Death Proof”)
Freddy RodrÃguez … Wray (segment “Planet Terror”)
Josh Brolin … Dr. William Block (segment “Planet Terror”)
Marley Shelton … Dr. Dakota Block (segments “Planet Terror”/”Death Proof”)
Jeff Fahey … J.T. (segment “Planet Terror”)
Michael Biehn … Sheriff Hague (segments “Planet Terror”/”Thanksgiving”)
Naveen Andrews … Abby (segment “Planet Terror”)
Stacy Ferguson … Tammy (segment “Planet Terror”)
Nicky Katt … Joe (segment “Planet Terror”)