You’ll probably see Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double-feature-within-a-feature this weekend, and if you’ve got a wicked streak, you’ll see it properly at a grimy midnight show or at the drive-in on a warm night where you can sit on the roof of your car and throw popcorn at the screen. Anything less would be too civilized.
For Grindhouse isn’t just a movie, but a whole film genre, one that peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the collapse of the moralistic Production Code (enforcers of the husband-and-wife twin beds) fortuitously collided with the rise of teen culture and cultural aggression. Thanks to Vietnam, death was on the dinnertime news, which gunned moviegoers’ appetites for gore.
Grindhouse theaters sprung up like poisonous mushrooms, packing in crowds aching to be shocked and awed by tits, knives and intestines. Herschell Gordon Lewis, George Romero and Russ Meyer became infamous auteurs. Sales in sheep intestines skyrocketed as wannabe filmmakers doused their friends in ick, and sent the footage off to make the rounds of the dives that swapped prints back and forth like the flu. And all was well until the VCR sent the kids scurrying back into their rec rooms.
Now Tarantino and Rodriguez want to lure them back out with their tribute/parody to the gross-out thrills of yore. It’s a three-hour-plus homage made of two full features—Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror—along with a gang of fake trailers and faded promos for a Mexican restaurant that serves up its heart attack platters of cheese and salsa with a side of Lays potato chips.
It’s gory, it’s memorable . . . but is it any good? I’ll tell you in a second. But first, a brief interlude of cinematic pretension that links notorious splatter films like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! to Greek philosophy (I promise I’ll make it quick).
After Plato argued that Athens should stop staging tragedies like Euripides’ Medea (his killer mom might be the first slasher tale) because they over-excited the populace, Aristotle’s Poetics rebutted that this violent over-excitement was a blessing: By tapping into their subconscious fears, these dark tales pushed the audience to confront their demons and, at the end, gain release. Onstage horrors prevent horrors—a theory University of California professors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna recently proved by cross-referencing weekend crime rates with box office receipts. They found that for every million people watching Hannibal’s opening weekend, crime dropped by 2 percent. Toy Story weekends kept the thugs hyped up in the streets, with a nightly average of 200 more attacks.
So when grindhouses started packing them in, culture nerds like myself were quick to search for parallels between the violence on screen and the violence outside. 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was pronounced as a hidden social critique on middle America, the Vietnam War, MLK’s assassination, the media, slavery, moronic governments, and the patriarchal nuclear family. That’s a lot for a zombie movie to cover.
And Rodriguez’s own zombie flick, Planet Terror, the first film on the program, doesn’t try to match its social sweep, though he does sideswipe the Iraq War—the toxic reanimating chemical is called Project Terror, and Osama bin Laden plays a pivotal role. In everything else, though—gross-outs, guns, corpses, sex—Rodriguez bests the grindhouse genre at its own shock value game.
Luscious Rose McGowan stars as Cherry, a go-go dancer having the ultimate bad day. Her town’s been overrun by zombies escaping from the local military base lorded over by evil soldier Bruce Willis, his gorgeous puss marred by zombie boils that puff up like Jiffy Pop. Horrible things happen to testicles—in the course of the film, they’re severed, stepped on, lesioned, pickled, and dissolved. As Cherry, badass ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), wicked doctor Dakota, her even more wicked husband, and her lesbian lover (Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin and Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson), a biochemist (Naveen Andrews), a barbecue chef (Jeff Fahey), and a pair of tarty twins (Electra and Elise Avellan) all battle the killer zombies, Rodriguez delights in pouring on the gore and gorgeousness like a giddy schoolboy scribbling fantasies in his notebook. Hungry shots of Fergie’s lady lumps get topped only when Cherry replaces her right leg with a machine gun and starts mowing ‘em down (American Sexuality mag loosened up enough to give Planet Terror kudos for proving amputees can be mega hot). Add a layer of scratch effects for period detail and some of the corniest jokes this side of the concession stand (a victim confronted with shears snipping towards his testicles whines, “But I’m really quite attached to them!”), and Rodriguez has packed what feels like the highlights of 10 grindhouse flicks into 85 minutes. Even so, he gets restless, and halfway through “loses” a reel to skip ahead to the climax as though wearied by shots of men eating their own intestines.
Tarantino’s Death Proof pulls the same lost reel trick, losing a heavily-hyped lap dance scene between Arlene and a mysterious man called Stunt Man Mike (Vanessa Ferlito and a hilarious Kurt Russell). A shot of the dance in the commercial trailer, however, suggests that it wasn’t just an in joke but a last-minute sacrifice to get taken down from NC-17 to R—only the likely future director’s cut edition knows for sure. Arlene and her pals Jungle Julia and Shanna (Sydney Poitier and Jordan Ladd) are downing beers in a Texas juke joint when they meet Mike, a leather-skinned devil with a face split by a scar, who may or may not be stalking them in his skull-painted black Chevy Nova. Mike’s car is “death proof,” a boast he can only put to the test by using it to crush his enemies. And on break from the set of a fictitious Lindsay Lohan/Darryl Hannah film, Hollywood crew Abernathy, Kim and Zoe (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Uma Thurman’s real Kill Bill stuntwoman, badass Zoe Bell) are the next victims in his book.
Tarantino’s segment is either genius or terrible—and for the life of me, I can’t tell which. Where everything in Planet Terror is exponentially over-the-top, Death Proof is long stretches of inertia, bad dialogue and slipshod plotting punctuated by two of the most crazy awesome car chases ever. Which is exactly the balance of a real piece of grindhouse trash—where brilliance is the exception, not the norm.
Tarantino’s the Yo-Yo Ma of cinema, a popularizer of the past. As Pauline Kael wrote of John Carpenter in her review of Halloween, “He doesn’t seem to have had any life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to directors such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma.” Is Tarantino such a mimic that he’d copy even the boring parts? Possibly, but that feels generous. How slavish can he be when, in a diner scene, Tarantino continually rotates the camera around the table in a long take meant to remind us of Reservoir Dogs? Kael went on to add that “Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness—when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest devices of the genre—it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.”
And damned if the stuffy critic’s audience I saw Grindhouse with didn’t explode into applause after the second bravura sequence: an extreme peril muscle car demolition derby that pits the tough chicks against a cackling Kurt Russell. It could have been ripped from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! if not for the modern SUVs and minivans dodging their carnage.
Talking about Grindhouse afterward is more fun than sitting through it, but you’ve gotta do the latter to enjoy the first. Hashing out the best scenes over beers, the fun grew in my memory, and I had to look at the notes I scrawled in the dark like “confused?” and “miserable!” to accurately recall the experience. The faux trailers are highlights. Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS is too forced, but the more pitch-perfect creations are riotous, including Don’t, a choppy, hilarious haunted house send-up by Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright; Eli Roth’s slasher pic Thanksgiving, which out-hacks Black Christmas and Halloween; and Machete, a Mexploitation flick starring the inimitable Danny Trejo that Rodriguez has threatened to extend to its own feature.
That these two award-laden directors are investing their time in rehashes feels like calculated slumming, but it’s more disreputable fun than the careers of Sam Raimi, now making millions with the Spiderman franchise, and Peter Jackson, who went from the lawnmower-versus-zombies bloodbath Dead Alive to Lord of the Rings respectability to forthcoming saccharine dreck like an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Still, the whole modern shape-shifting posse has nothing on originals like directors George Romero and Herschell Gordon Lewis, who together have shot grindhouse classics for 86 years, with not a single classy project staining their reputations. They’ve thrilled generations of drive-in patrons, and if Grindhouse doesn’t top them, at least it whets your appetite for the four—yes, four—horror flicks Romero’s churning out this year. Unlucky zombie victims; lucky you.