Grindhouse: Planet Terror and Death Proof (2007)

Directors: Robert Rodriquez and Eli Roth
Director: Quentin Tarantino

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Quentin Tarantino’s love of film genres, particularly those of the 1970s, is well known to film fans. Robert Rodriguez is no stranger to low-budget, high-action films; he has something akin to a grindhouse aesthetic. The two writer/directors first teamed up on the wildly inventive and entertaining vampire Western From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). I always imagine that Tarantino and Rodriguez were jawing one day when Q.T. said “Let’s put on a grindhouse double bill”—B exploitation films sandwiched between trailers of other (in this case, nonexistent) exploitation films. Being the skillful filmmakers they are, Rodriguez and Tarantino turn in films that obviously have a lot more money and technique behind them than real grindhouse films ever did. Given that their homage is already in a different category of filmmaking, should they be judged as grindhouse films or as contemporary films that use the visual vocabulary of the originals?

Planet Terror literally opens in a grindhouse, as Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling, “go-go” dances under the opening credits. She hates her job and quits that night with plans to change her life by becoming a stand-up comedienne. At the same time, a biochemical weapons leak is turning humans into zombies who, of course, are highly contagious to those they feed on. A biochemical engineer named Abby (Naveen Andrews) enters a military base to sell a supply of the gas to military troops who have already been exposed and who can stay human as long as they can breathe it as a form of temporary vaccine. He intends, however, to wipe out the troops and work on developing a permanent vaccine. In a spectacular battle that pits Abby and his commandos against Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) and his troops, the green vapor is blown into the air.

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Cherry meets up with her old beau El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at a barbecue joint, J.T.’s Bone Shack, run by quintessential Western “cookie” J. T. (Jeff Fahey) with his own running gag—he won’t share his recipe with his brother, Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn). Soon they are under attack from a pack of zombies.

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Meanwhile, the town hospital has been treating some patients with unusual boils erupting on their skin. Bisexual doctor Dakota Block (Mary Shelton) is attacked by her murder-minded husband, Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin), who has learned that her ex-lover (Fergie) is coming to meet her. Cherry gets her leg chewed off, goes to the hospital, replaces it with a table leg to escape the zombie-infested hospital, and hobbles out with El Wray at her side. Eventually, a small band of survivors meet up with Abby and plan an assault on the military base to kill the ringleader of the zombies and get Abby what he needs to create a permanent vaccine.

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The fairly high production values, the presence of an A-list star like Bruce Willis, and the elaborate gunfire and pyrotechnics all mark this film as something other than grindhouse. I thought that Rodriguez brought his Mexican absurdity and sexually open sensibilities to this over-the-top film. Although the film discreetly inserts a “Missing Reel” title card in place of the sex scene between El Wray and Cherry, we still get a screen full of steam beforehand.

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There is a fairly high level of humor in the film. For example, Cherry, newly equipped with a machine gun for a leg, somehow mows down dozens of zombies by pointing her artificial “limb” straight out, spinning on her foot and, I guess, using her thoughts to pull the trigger. The return of Josh Brolin’s character to menace his wife, reminiscent of Glenn Close’s repeated returns from the dead in Fatal Attraction (1987), is a predictable, but still effective gag, and Dakota’s anesthetized hands made for some floppy fun. Quarrelsome twins who were babysitting Dakota’s son have to be reminded that they are about to be eaten to stop their bickering. Even the Bone Shack is cartoonlike in appearance.

I found this first half of this double bill extremely entertaining, with pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast, with special kudos to the sexy and powerful Rose McGowan and “why isn’t he a star yet” Freddy Rodriguez. The level of gore was pleasingly high and the overall story jam-packed with so many odd bits and pieces that it seemed sewn together from other B movie scripts. Even so, this film was an original creation with the hallmark elements of grindhouse films but a contemporary sensibility.

The bard of film homage, Quentin Tarantino, sought to craft a close-to-authentic recreation of a grindhouse film, and has populated Death Proof with artifacts of real grindhouse movies (the Alpine White 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440/375 horsepower engine from Vanishing Point, the duck hood ornament from Convoy) as well as references to other films, including his own. Since this was my first experience of a Tarantino-directed film, I was finally able to see what everyone else has been talking about for so long.

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The film opens on the rear end of a woman. Her cotton panties saunter about her spacious home; she stretches out on her couch in exactly the same pose as the gigantic photographic print hanging above it, an imitation that highlights Tarantino’s own effort. The woman is Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a local radio host. She’s entertaining Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), a friend of hers who is in town for the weekend. The two young women drive with Julia’s friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to a bar, talking about their sex lives and arguing about who is going to score some dope. Arlene hesitates on the front stoop of the bar, where she sees a black muscle car standing, seeming to watch her, and then peeling out.

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The women pretty much pick up their conversation where they left it when they take up a table at the bar, with Julia relaxing with her leg dangling over a chair back; they gossip about a blonde at the bar named Pam (Rose McGowan), who was not part of their clique in high school. Pam finds a sympathetic ear from a middle-age man who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). He’s an old-fashioned guy with an enormous scar down his face who ticks off the ancient TV shows he worked on to an uncomprehending Pam. The four friends walk out of the bar intending to drive to a cabin on a lake. Stuntman Mike follows them out and proffers a challenge to Arlene, aka “Butterfly,” that Julia foisted upon her on the air. She accepts the challenge to give Mike a lap dance. Again, a “Missing Reel” title card flashes on screen.

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When next we see the girls, they are driving away, with Julia dangling her leg outside the window and participating in another lengthy conversation. Pam gets a ride from Mike and is unprepared for the stunt car rigging inside. Mike reveals himself to be a psycho, driving in a reckless way that throws Pam about the car, eventually killing her. He cuts his lights and prepares to hit the car carrying the girls head on.

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After Psycho Mike recovers from the crash that killed all the women, he goes on the prowl again. He photographs four more women, colleagues working on a film shooting on location. Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and two stuntwomen, Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe (real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell). One of New Zealander Zoe’s ambitions during this trip to the States is to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440/375 horsepower engine. She has already contacted a man with one for sale in the area, and the women persuade him to let them take it on a road test by insinuating that Lee (unbeknownst to her) will give him a blow job.

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They take the car out and Zoe persuades Kim to drive fast while she lays on the hood holding onto leather straps strung through the front-seat windows. That’s when Stuntman Mike makes his move, ramming their car in an attempt to get Zoe to let go and roll under the wheels. He didn’t count on becoming the hunted instead of the hunter, and the film ends in a thrilling chase.

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True to his style, Tarantino alternates long sequences of dialogue with explosive action, and terrific action it is. He builds suspense in the first half by cutting between Pam’s plight in Stuntman Mike’s car and the unsuspecting women he intends to kill. When the cars collide, Tarantino provides some grisly images to cap off the innocent ones they mirror. It’s also thrilling to see Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy shouting for payback and pursuing this cowardly killer, unafraid and able to give better than they got, including a gunshot to Mike’s shoulder from Kim’s concealed weapon.

Rod told me that “Death Proof is the first Hawksian action film since, well, Howard Hawks died.” He has a point. The film has nothing extraneous or tricked up as a distraction from the characters and their situation, and at least a couple of the characters—Arlene and Stuntman Mike—show some inner life that makes them interesting. The end of the film does rather echo Red River (1948), though it is less meaningful that Clift and Wayne’s head to head.

The killer, though, is the insipid dialogue he puts into his characters’ mouths. True, grindhouse films weren’t very well written, but then this film is an homage and, frankly, Tarantino is a great writer who can do better. The dialogue in Death Proof is so boring and annoying that I actually fast-forwarded through several scenes when I couldn’t take it any longer. There is the liberal use of the f-word, of course, which, I must admit, does establish a certain rhythm after a while, but not one I would care to hear again. I suppose there are scholarly treatises by now on the use of the word “fuck” in the films of Quentin Tarantino. I don’t find its use particularly interesting or necessary, blunting its power to convey emotion through overuse. But then, that’s just me. Death Proof isn’t really very sexy either, and therefore the action sequences are its only viable form of stimulation.

I can find things to admire in Death Proof, but it overwhelmed me with tedium for overlong stretches. Planet Terror was much lighter and fairly unfaithful to grindhouse films of the past, but it was very entertaining. I recommend the top of the bill to everyone and the bottom of the bill to those more seriously interested in film history and original technique. The trailers were entertaining and part of the nostalgic experience. I’ll leave those to you to discover for yourself.

  • Anil spoke:
    18th/09/2008 to 1:41 am

    Strange choice for a first Tarantino film to watch, but not entirely a wrong one.
    As for Death Proof, I will disagree. I think the dialogues were flowing so smoothly, were so witty and yet at the same time so loyal to the feel of a B-movie that I think Tarantino has achieved something that I had thought was impossible to do. True, the pacing was quite slow and conversation-driven and this especially felt draggy right after an action-packed piece like Planet Terror, but I never found Tarantino’s film tedious. Just before I began to lose interest, the wonderful and all-real action sequences took over and there was literally no time to even take my eyes off the screen.
    And I think the missing reel in Death Proof was one of the best scenes in the entire duology (the seperate copies have that scene, as you might already be aware of).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/09/2008 to 8:15 am

    You may be right about how the dialogue in Death Proof might appear to most movie fans. I found it very annoying because I was a woman who hated girl-talk and avoiding hanging around with other women when I was the age of these characters. I sincerely tried to give these scenes a chance, but this was one area of imitation that Tarantino did too well for my tastes.
    Yes, I am aware of the outtakes existing on DVD, but I haven’t seen them. I would like to.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    18th/09/2008 to 10:32 pm

    You did it. You really did it. Too bad about “Death Proof.” I really like Kurt Russell in Snake Pliskin mode.
    Personally, I get a bit tired of filmmakers claiming this or that aesthetic, like we’re exploring the “grind-house” aesthetic or paying homage to the Samurai film, as if its some big research project, or an actual art film, and then what we get is a geek-fest. Why, in a QT homage, are things always intensified, over-the-top (i.e., the violence)? There are many ways to pay homage to a genre without playing to the lowest common bloodlust of teenage fanboys.
    QT and RR are the current masters at this, they’re constantly putting lipstick on a pig (where have I heard this before?). Fortunately, at least for them, their films are moderately entertaining.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 6:34 am

    Actually, I think Death Proof is an intelligent homage, not over to top, and an extremely well-crafted film. If he’d cut those talk sequences down a bit, I personally would have given this film a rave. Russell is superb in the film; when he’s being hunted, his crumple into a pathetic loser is terrific and very satisfying. I really do recommend this film; I think my personal peeves should not be the sole reason you decide whether to see the film.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 7:54 am

    No, I agree that personal peeves shouldn’t be the reason not to recommend a film. But we’re allowed to wonder about how a canny filmmaker like QT packages what — to some — seems like an excuse to bloodily kill women. Does the fact that “Death Proof” seems to be yet another variation on encouraging teenage males to get their rocks off watching females get murdered not bother you?
    Look at the scenario as you describe it … a woman dangles her leg (seductively?) over a chair … she’s just askin’ for it, of course … she does the same thing out of the car window, the saucy minx. The only response to that, of course, is to kill her. The fact that women get him in the end hardly makes up for it. Everybody’s revenge fantasies are satiated.
    Ask Native American activists if they are amused at all those old, wonderful John Ford movies where we’re encouraged to cheer as John Wayne kills their ancestors.
    I would expect nothing less from Tarantino that it be well-made. He is a crackerjack filmmaker. No question about it. But I guess my question goes beyond that … where are the ethics in filmmaking? They used to talk about them, back in the fifties in the neo-realist movies and such. Now the ethics are if you can do it, and it’s well made, go ahead, no matter how socially abhorrent it is.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 9:39 am

    If you’re looking for ethics, films aren’t the place to go. They are created to make money if they’re produced by the Weinsteins, as these are, and the films being imitated are called exploitation for a reason.
    I kind of dealt with this issue with the I Spit on Your Grave/A Question of Silence post. It’s going to take more than a higher level of taste at the movies to root out the rampant misogyny in this country (world). Look at the presidential election–a more viciously sexist contest I’ve never seen, and these are adults competing to run the free world more or less.
    Stuntman Mike definitely has a problem with young women. But at least he gets his comeuppance, and women have power they aren’t usually assigned.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 2:38 pm

    I agree, film ethics is a long-gone commodity. But filmmakers and film critics used to be concerned with ethics, used to CARE how our favorite, powerful, immersive, coercive medium is used. (again, look at the neo-realists and new-wavers). Now we just say technical quality is the only criterion used to judge whether someone should recommend a film or not.
    Remember one of Godard’s famous maxims? “A tracking shot is a moral act?” He was not talking about technical expertise, but the effect it had on the audience, the kind of reaction it evoked. We do not worry about that anymore.
    It’s all become so “meta.” As long as filmmakers wink at it — yes we know it’s over the top, we know it’s exploitative, and we know that you know that we know, so it’s all right. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who miss the wink.
    Don’t get me wrong … I think it’s better for women to get even in the end than not. Empowerment is good. But I cringe at the necessity of the balancing act at all. And the cynical calculation of QT and his buddies floors me: we can still pander to 18-to-25-year-olds’ rape fantasies as long as it ends winning “good” winning out. Interesting: sounds like a warped version of the Production Code to me.
    I abhor censorship in all it’s many flavors. I will stand up for the right of Tarantino and Rodriguez to make any film they can find somebody to finance. But there is something missing from a lot of film reviews and analysis when we don’t take into account ethical considerations.
    Thanks for a place to rant. I’ll shut up now.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 3:00 pm

    I think your point is well taken, Rick. Perhaps it is the point to say, as I did in my last post, “Don’t try this at home.” Perhaps I should point out that this behavior should be historically peculiar, not something to revel in.
    As for whether QT should, I’m keeping my hands off that one. The destruction wrought by the Production Code included women’s rights, and I’m not going to talk to creators about what they should or should not feature.
    Films often reflect the zeitgeist of the time, and I think our time is a time of lotus eaters and nostalgia freaks looking for something resembling the “good old days.” Tarantino is one of the latter, trying to relive and revive his movie-going experiences during his formative years. The unended recycling of TV shows for nostalgic Boomers and the toy/video game films for fanboys leaves very little room for reality to intrude.
    We used to have “issues” films that helped people face up to the times in which they live. Now, we are feeling disillusioned and powerless. That’s how a guy like Barack Obama can create such a sensation just by giving people a good feeling. Our films are more escapist than ever and part of that escape is a way to experience our rage.
    I will say that Tarantino made his film a little better by revealing what a sniveling coward Stuntman Mike was. He literally whines about his wounded shoulder and how unfair it is that this should happen to him. He’s a very contemporary villian in that sense – the monster he portrays is a lot like the sniper in Targets. “I was afraid of THAT?”

  • Patrick spoke:
    19th/09/2008 to 11:25 pm

    Are these two available in the same form as they were in the theatrical release? After they mostly bombed in theaters, I know the distributor cut them up into two separate movies for the DVD release. Wondering if you saw them that way or as originally shown.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/09/2008 to 5:15 am

    As originally shown. On cable. As far as I know, they are not currently available as a double feature.

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