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The concept is genius. Retro may be all the rage, but when writer-directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were cooking up Grindhouse, they were reaching beyond John Hughes movies and not putting baby in a corner. Instead, they put baby in a strip club and hot pants: The frequent collaborators, perhaps the most devoted fanboys in the world, wanted to pay homage to the exploitation films of yore. (“Yore,” in this case, being the ’70s.) As with all their work, they wanted blood. Guns. T&A. And if zombies and car chases could be factored in, all the better. They wanted the type of flick that would have been shown back then in run-down theaters known as grindhouses. (Unfamiliar with the concept? Then perhaps you stayed home with the rest of the country during the film’s dismal $11.6 million opening weekend.)
But instead of making a mere movie, Rodriguez and Tarantino created a moviegoing experience within a moviegoing experience. They scotched the idea of co-directing a singular vision of giddy nastiness and each birthed their own, to be presented as a quasindouble feature complete with old theater slides and coming attractions at the beginning and at intermission. The intended result would be three-plus hours of a teenage boy’s dream and arguably the biggest event release since Anakin became Vader.
Except—sigh—Grindhouse doesn’t entirely work. If you prefer that your mediocre movies at least start with a bang, however, you’re in luck. Grindhouse begins with Rodriguez’s fake trailer for a Western called Machete (starring Danny Trejo and offering the unforgettable tagline, “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican”). Then Rodriguez’s feature, Planet Terror, starts rolling. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is giving her last go-go dance at a dive before flipping off her boss and wandering into the cold lonely night. She runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), whom she wants nothing to do with—until a couple of zombies, the product of government bioterror gone wrong, tear off her leg. The threat of apocalypse isn’t far behind, also affecting husband-and-wife doctors (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton), the wife’s special friend (Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie), and various law-enforcement types.
Planet Terror is gleeful cheese, presenting a world in which all your crap-movie clichés are served—everyone has a gun, or is a martial-arts expert, or is part of a you-didn’t-believe-in-us! couple. (Or, in Wray’s case, all of the above.) The repercussions of this particular wave of the undead are wonderfully and ickily Slither-like—ballooning body parts, bursting pustules, and likely the most disgusting infected nether regions you’ve ever seen. Some of the story is slow, but Rodriguez is so extreme when things do get campy that those stretches don’t ruin the movie: The action, including McGowan’s well-advertised gun-leg, is thrillingly inventive, as is intentionally terrible dialogue such as Cherry’s post-amputation moan, “I was going to be a stand-up comedian. Who’s going to laugh now?” Rodriguez also composed the score, which leans toward Pulp Fiction’s style of menacing surf-rock.
Tarantino, rather surprisingly, doesn’t do as well, either with his own film or his way-too-long screen presence. He plays a horndog military man in Planet Terror; instead of using his funny side as a dorkily sleazy hey-bébé type, well, he’s credited as “Rapist No. 1.” ’Nuff said. The misogyny continues in Death Proof, his half of Grindhouse. The film follows a serial killer, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who self-medicates by pulverizing women with his reinforced Chevy Nova. Tarantino’s described Death Proof as a “women’s revenge” story, and that’s not a lie—Stuntman Mike rather entertainingly turns into a sniveling idiot when he’s being threatened with a vehicular smackdown by a group of gals. But it takes a long time to get to that point, and the action, though sensational, makes up a too-minor part of the movie. (I may be kicked out of the Estrogen Club for this, but truthfully, not enough people die.)
What dominates Death Proof is talk—lots of girlfriends talking. About, for instance, why guys they like cheat or don’t call them back. There is a bit of Tarantino’s acrobatic dialogue here, but none of it snaps, none of it’s memorable, and you’d have to be one of these young women’s mothers to find any of it interesting. Only during a couple of segments do you feel Tarantino’s excitement behind the camera. The best part of the film is Russell, but he disappears near the midpoint when the story seems to become something else entirely.
Worse, Death Proof has a giant continuity whoops, and not the B-movie kind. Brilliantly, the directors faux-aged Grindhouse to look as if it’s been on the marquee since the Nixon administration. The presentation is dogged by scratches, hiccuping frames, and missing reels (amusingly, the two reels that are MIA are of impending sex scenes), even burnt film stock and bogus adjustments. It feels so genuine that you may find yourself getting irritated and grumbling about the current trend of dumping union projectionists. But Death Proof, at a point you probably won’t initially notice, gets crystal clear. Not only does it not feel right, it isn’t right, at least according to the grindhouse aesthetic.
As is true of both directors’ past films, however, the soundtrack is terrific, so unusual and fun that it often comes across as the bleu cheese that makes that wedge of iceberg palatable. And as is the case with the majority of releases in general, the trailers embedded in Grindhouse are some of its most glorious moments. In addition to Rodriguez’s Machete, you’ll see Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S., Eli Roth’s unbelievably grotesque Thanksgiving, and Edgar Wright’s hilarious Don’t Scream, which shows that the British Hot Fuzz director can also kick out minutelong masterpieces. Word is that some or all of the directors are thinking about expanding their teasers into movies—Grindhouse might not have quite nailed its ambition, but there’s good reason to look forward to a Grindhouse 2.