Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double-barreled valentine to all things cheap, sleazy and shocking aims to do far more than pay homage to the marginal movies that shaped their pop sensibilities: It's an ambitious attempt to recreate the grindhouse-theater experience of taking in a low-budget (often crazily mismatched) double bill, bracketed by coming attractions for lurid future fare and sundry battered theatrical ephemera. Does it feel like the real thing? No. Is it an incredible simulation? Yes, it's pretty incredible, from CGI scratches, missing frames and melting emulsion to missing reels and the interstitial clip that heralds "Prevues of Coming Attractions" against the backdrop of a pulsating disk and vaguely groovy horn music. Add an awesomely sticky floor, a pungent cloud of marijuana smoke, and an intimation of barely suppressed violence, and you have a pretty fair approximation of a night at Times Square's Lyric Theater.
Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR, a gory, goopy gloss on low-rent cannibal zombie pictures, opens the double bill. It's an ordinary night in some Texas backwater — a couple of miles of rough road; a sinister military base; a sleaze-o-rama go-go bar; a sleepy local hospital; a small, asking-to-be-embattled sheriff's station — and the only place to grab a late-night bite is the Bone Shack BBQ pit. An experimental gas turns everyone who comes into contact with it into ravenous zombies, and in no time flat the living's only defense against the grim, grisly and growing ranks of the undead are the local yokels: enigmatic drifter Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his ex-girlfriend, go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan); Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) and his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), who owns and operates the Bone Shack; Deputy Tolo (legendary effects artist Tom Savini, whose gory demise pays cheeky homage to DAY OF THE DEAD); sinister scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews of TV's Lost); unhappily married doctors Dakota and William Block (Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin); military hardass Muldoon (Bruce Willis); and Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks, reprising his KILL BILL role).
Tarantino's DEATH PROOF takes its cue from ultra-threadbare regional oddities like PSYCHO FROM TEXAS (1975), HITCH HIKE TO HELL (1977) and KIDNAPPED COED (1975), in which heedless girlies blunder onto the path of some killer on the road and long stretches of boredom erupt into sudden spasms of brutal violence. Tarantino's version pits two sets of female friends against Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a scarred, deceptively genial loner in a "death proof" car. Of course, to get the benefits of its structural modifications, you need to be in the driver's seat, as pretty Pam (McGowan again, this time in a platinum wig) and BFFs Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) discover. But things play out rather differently when Stuntman Mike targets another group of four women: stunt drivers Zoe Bell (as herself; she doubled Uma Thurman in KILL BILL) and Kim (Tracie Thoms), makeup girl Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and ditsy actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who are taking advantage of a break in location shooting to take a little road trip. Stuntman Mike tries to force them to play a vicious game of his own devising, but Zoe and Kim know as well as he does how to turn a vintage Dodge muscle car into a lethal weapon.
And then there are the trailers: Rodriguez's "Machete," with Danny Trejo as a street-fighting man and Cheech Marin as his brother, a priest who still knows his way around the mean streets; Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the S.S.," featuring Sybil Danning, Udo Kier, Sheri Moon and Bill Mosely in a Nazi-lycanthropic vixen mash-up; Edgar Wright's "Don't," a sub-Hammer gothic horror pastiche; and Eli Roth's gleefully disgusting "Thanksgiving," a dire holiday-themed slasher flick. With the exception of "Werewolf Women," which tries a little too hard, they're all spot-on pastiches.
In some ways GRINDHOUSE defies criticism. To argue that PLANET TERROR is a derivative exercise in zombie-siege mayhem with some goopy INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1978) mixed in, or that DEATH PROOF is an exercise in tedium relieved only by sudden paroxysms of savagery, only means getting deservedly slapped down with a sharp, "But that's exactly what those movies were like." And they were. Tarantino and Rodriguez nail one detail after another, right town to the titles. Exploiting the split-second mention of a military medical experiment dubbed "Project Terror" to expand on the marquee appeal of a cheapo horror movie called PLANET TERROR, a title that might suggest to an unsuspecting audience that they're in for a sci-fi/horror hybrid in the ALIEN vein (which it's not), tells the story of how seasoned grindhouse hucksters operated. Pure evil genius, this writer says with the rueful admiration of one who fell for many such vintage bait-and-switch scams. I personally prefer DEATH PROOF, even if Tarantino's dialogue is too self-consciously arch by half, because years of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD rip-offs burned me out on vaguely camp cannibal-zombie gut crunchers. DEATH PROOF dips into a leaner, meaner pool of killer cliches and successfully blends vintage stunt driving, feminist girls-fight-back tropes, and a sleepy, creepy sense of the nasty stuff that occurs on dirty back roads. But it lacks a stand-alone image that packs the iconic punch of Candy's machine-gun prosthesis, which does Paul Schrader's seminal ROLLING THUNDER (1977) one — or make that two — better: a whole leg versus a hand ground up in a garbage disposal and replaced by a lethal hook, and crying cutie McGowan versus glowering Vietnam-vet William Devane. (Just by the by, Schrader's revenge thriller was the inspiration for Tarantino's short-lived Rolling Thunder Releasing.) Overall, GRINDHOUSE may well be the Beatlemania of sleaze-movie viewing, but since the real thing is gone it's the best that many fans will ever have.
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