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Grindhouse (Planet Terror / Death Proof) April 8, 2007

Posted by Sai in English, Movies, Reviews.
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For the uninitiated, this film is a tribute to the exploitation films of yore that contain excessive violence, gore, sex and are completely over the top. This includes sub genres like Zombie films, Biker films, Car chase films, Women in prison films and cannibal films (source: Wikipedia). This film, in particular, tries to recreate the era of double features in the seventies and eighties in the US when you could watch two of these films for the price of one.

Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction) who has always been a great fan of these films, teams up with close friend Robert Rodqriguez (Sin City, Once upon a time in Mexico) to recreate the era of sleazy double features. Apparently, they hit upon the idea during one of Quentin’s regular double feature screenings (replete with trailers) at home for Robert.

Rodriguez’ Planet Terror belongs to the genre of Zombie films with infected people. The central character here is a go-go dancer called Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan). She is frustrated with her job and wants to become a stand-up comedian. While she is just about to reunite with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) a group of military officials led by Lt Muldoon (Bruce Willis) find out that the a group of zombies have escaped captivity and are infecting the people in this town. In another subplot, Dr William Block (Josh Brollin) who is treating some of the infected finds out that his wife Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is cheating on him with another woman and decides to kill her. There are other subplots featuring characters like Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn), his brother JT (Jeff Fahey) and a scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) who has a habit of collecting something that I wouldn’t want to mention here. As the whole town seems to be getting infected at a rapid pace, it is now upto the uninfected to find a cure or, better yet, escape from the town.

Tarantino’s film is an amalgamation of the slasher and the car-chase genres together with his brand of humor-filled generally-unimportant-to-the-plot conversations thrown in. This film has two distinct acts and it might as well have featured an interval. The first part introduces radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sidney Poitier’s daughter Sydney Poitier) alongwith her friends Arlene/Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd). Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who has a reinforced car that is used in film stunts so that the driver isn’t affected, is a serial killer. He follows girls and kills them with his car. He targets these three girls and kills them alongwith another called Pam (Rose McGowan) ending the first part. The second part introduces us to another group of women who are taking a break from shooting a film. The group comprises of two stuntwomen Zoe (Zoe Bell, a real life stuntwoman who doubled up for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill) and Kim (Tracie Thorns) together with make-up woman Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Zoe wants to try out a dangerous stunt called half mast on a 1970 Dodge Challenger (featured in a film called Vanishing Point). As they are doing this, Stuntman Mike tries to kill them. After a narrow escape, they are out to get revenge.

Apart from these two features, there are four faux trailers – Rodriguez’ Machete, The Devil’s Reject director Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS, Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s Don’t and Hostel director Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving – and an ad for a diner next door.

Before watching this film, I was sure that there was no way that I wasn’t going to enjoy this film. The only question then was how much I’d like it. And the answer would be “quite a bit”.

The experience started with the trailer of Machete featuring Danny Trejo as a wronged Mexican out for revenge. Quite funny and the second best of the four trailers.

This was followed by Planet Terror. This has quite a few laughs and a number of gross-out moments that come at you quite fast and you’ll definitely miss some of the gags. Though I’m not familiar with the genre or its cliches and despite my dislike for the idea of a Zombie movie in general, I thoroughly enjoyed this intentionally funny tribute. Among the actors in the segment, I liked the work of Rose McGowan and Marley Shelton (and yes, Quentin isn’t really an actor).

Next in line were the remaining three trailers and the ad for the diner. The trailer for Thanksgiving is undoubtedly the funniest of the lot and don’t miss the special appearance of Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu in Werewolf Women of the SS.

Finally, Death Proof commences in typical Tarantino style with largely purposeless chatter (not that I didn’t enjoy it but I wonder if it actually is grindhouse). After a bit, the narrative picks up speed and by the time Kurt Russell kills the first four women, I was hooked. Then, there are more female characters and more prattle and again I wondered. However, this time the dialogue was very funny and I stopped wondering. The last 20 minutes that feature the car chases pumped me up quite a bit and a large part of the audience was clapping as the end credits rolled. The car chases done without CGI totally work and Quentin executes that part truly well. The dialogue in the second part of the segment is better than in the first. Among the actors, Tracie Thorns made me laugh the most and Zoe is right for the part with her smile and energy being quite infectious. Kurt Russell is quite good as Stuntman Mike (and again, Quentin isn’t really an actor).

To enhance the experience and give the feel of a low quality grindhouse flick whose reels would go through a lot of wear and tear as it toured the country, Rodriguez and Tarantino recreate scratches, fading, changes in color, sound and even burning film. The most hilarious of those changes is of course the missing reel used to good effect by both.

Both Planet Terror and Death Proof worked for me, albeit very differently. Having not watched any films in the zombie genre, Planet Terror worked for me. This was the over-the-top film that I had imagined a no-holds-barred exploitation film to be. However, Death Proof seemed more like a straight film to me. Though the film starts off slowly, it ends giving you a total adrenaline rush by the end. A good film with the boundaries of an exploitation film that is only looking to thrill the audience. Unlike some stupid action flicks of today, there seemingly isn’t a conscious attempt to develop characters to please the critics and appeal to the emotions of the audience (that generally doesn’t work in those films). However, when the three girls start to get their revenge, it was very hard to not get excited and hope that they get their well-deserved revenge. This is what should be the aim of such a film and that is where the brilliance of Tarantino lies. He totally gets it (just what I hoped to get from Tarantino – a reinvention of the genre for today’s audience). And whats more, he even makes it plausible by featuring stunt people in their reinforced cars doing the tricks, giving us a reason for Kim keeping a gun and more. Among the trailers, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving wins hand down followed by Rodriguez’ Machete.

Those who felt Kill Bill was overlong and broken into two parts just to make money might have to eat their words because this one is two films plus more for the price of just one. For the overseas market, both the films are expected to be released separately because the audience is unfamiliar with the double feature culture. I would say that it is a good decision because primarily both these films are completely different experiences. The way Planet Terror progresses with a great number of laughs and a fast pace affects Death Proof. Death Proof starts off slowly with a lot of conversations that don’t provide laugh-out-loud moments like Planet Terror. This will definitely cause the more impatient members of the audience to doubt it is worth watching. However, those that are patient enough will get funnier moments later and a great bunch of thrills. The second reason to split this is that the length, at 191 minutes, is too long for most audiences and this would probably be the more important reason for the distributors.

As was the case with Kill Bill, it is difficult to figure out all the references in the film and I am definitely going to check this out on DVD again. Another reason to check this out on DVD as well is that both features have been reduced to fit into the Grindhouse format and the DVDs are expected to feature the directors’ cuts.

The crash at the end of the first half of Death Proof, the humor and the chases in the second half of Death Proof, Rose McGowan shooting with the machine gun (that replaces her leg) in Planet Terror and the trailer of Thanksgiving were the most enjoyable moments for me. I would recommend this film to those who’ve enjoyed the work of Tarantino and Rodriguez in the past. Anyone else whose curiosity has been raised might also want to check this out. For foreign viewers who might have to decide between the two, action lovers might definitely want to check out Death Proof while those who find the idea of a funny take on the Zombie genre appealing should check out Planet Terror.

Parting shot: Though the double feature concept is new to me, the exploitation genre is not exactly alien. I have seen many so-bad-they’re-good films in Hollywood with bigger budgets and bigger stars. Even in Indian films, Ramsay’s sleazy horror films and the star-centric action films come close to matching the genre (and Ram Gopal Varma’s love for the Ramsay films is similar to the respect that Rodriguez and Tarantino have for the grindhouse films). The problem with some of these films is that they hold back from being outrightly exploitative and try to appeal to everyone (an attempt at character building for example) and that leaves them neither here nor there.