Warning: This review contains spoilers and a rampaging lemur.
The tragic misperception of grindhouse movies, furthered by fusty film critics who prefer their entertainment wholly honorable and resoundingly stale, is that they are, first and foremost, bad, thus suggesting that those who adore them are, at best, ironic in their appreciation or, at worst, taste-impaired. The problem with this assessment is that "grindhouse" – a term, as you know by now, referring to dingy movie theaters in shitty sections of New York City and Los Angeles dedicated to churning out exploitation fare for rabid film buffs and easy-to-please bums seeking a darkened room in which to sleep off the previous evening’s Thunderbird bender – covers too wide a range of genres and styles and pedigrees to be brushed off in such a manner; without the grindhouses, adventurous filmgoers would’ve never discovered the early works of John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg, John Sayles and countless others. They also wouldn’t have discovered Umberto Lenzi. For many, sacrificing one Suspiria in order to blot out Lenzi’s entire oeuvre might not be that vulgar of a tradeoff.
Notwithstanding the fact that Lenzi actually made a decent movie here and there, if he existed merely to inspire Robert Rodriguez to finally make good on the crowd-pleasing potential he’s been squandering since El Mariachi tricked every doofus with a camera into thinking they could be the low-rent reincarnation of Sam Peckinpah, then, damn it, let us now praise marginally famous Italian schlockmeisters, because Planet Terror is the contagion/zombie classic Lenzi would’ve made if he ever had a budget and a sense of pacing. It is a movie of glorious excess, a hybrid of Italian horror and 1980s action as churned out by Sirs Golan and Globus; it is also the most inventive and tightly plotted screenplay Rodriguez has ever written, and possibly the most relentlessly entertaining film a major studio will release this year.
And it’s only the second best movie in Grindhouse. Though it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that Quentin Tarantino has, with Death Proof, once again outdone his Weinstein-indentured buddy, what should shock people is that, in conflating the slasher and car chase genres, Tarantino has slapped together his most formally audacious work since Pulp Fiction. After coloring outside the lines to impetuously enjoyable effect with the Kill Bill saga, Tarantino has, to a startling extent, focused himself and written what can most confusingly be described as Eugene O’Neill’s The Car by way of Susan Faludi. If Godard had any interest in shooting a car chase, he might’ve headed in this direction following Week End.
But let’s skip back to Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s digitally degraded homage not just to Lenzi but to all those action-heavy mélanges that could never deliver the thrills promised by their posters or trailers or video covers. Creatively, Rodriguez has been liberated; plot-wise, he’s essentially retrofitted George A. Romero’s The Crazies with a crackerjack structure reminiscent of James Cameron at his white-knuckling best. And Rodriguez wastes precious little time hurtling the viewer right into his loopy narrative concerning a ragtag group of Texans struggling to fight off a populace infected by a military-devised virus. What’s wonderful about Rodriguez’s storytelling is how he economically tends to multiple arcs: there’s his protagonist, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), who’s got some kind of ambiguous history with Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn); there’s Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), Wray’s ex-girlfriend who’s quitting the go-go dancing racket to become a stand-up comic even though she’s not funny; there’s Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), who appears to be on the verge of leaving her shitheel doctor husband, Bill (Josh Brolin); there’s Abby (Naveen Andrews), a shadowy military contractor who carries around a jar of severed testicles collected from those who failed or crossed him; and, finally, there’s J.T. (Jeff Fahey), the proprietor of the best BBQ joint in Texas whose brother, Sheriff Hague, is essentially threatening to blackmail him out of business if he doesn’t share his secret BBQ recipe. That’s a lot to cram into eighty minutes’ worth of movie, but Rodriguez does it without breaking a sweat (though his colorful cast certainly helps to make the characters more indelible than those in most movies of this ilk).
At this stage in his career, it’s pretty obvious that Rodriguez’s primary aspiration is to become a master showman. Aside from Sin City, which got its thematic heft from Frank Miller, Rodriguez has evinced scant interest in crafting anything that engages the intellect; the only response that matters to him is the visceral, and that is, sometimes literally, where Planet Terror lives. But it isn’t disgusting or morally reprehensible in the way that Lenzi’s or Joe D’Amato’s work could be. There’s actually a world worth restoring in Planet Terror, and it’s never in doubt that Rodriguez will take care of his audience and get that world back into some kind of working order. Is this a violation of the grindhouse code? It is if your appreciation of grindhouse movies begins and ends with the rough stuff, in which case I recommend you make friends with the Ilsa trilogy or, better yet, wait for Eli Roth’s full-length feature version of Thanksgiving. Otherwise, there’s no way Planet Terror won’t work for you; it’s just too perfectly structured and executed to fall flat.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, it’s easily the best of the three trailers which separate Planet Terror and Death Proof. Joining it are Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS (more of an advertisement for Zombie’s company of actors, though there is one killer cameo) and Edgar Wright’s… well, giving away the title ruins the joke, so I’ll abstain. It is, however, a very good joke. Rodriguez has also contributed a trailer of his own for Machete, a speculative Danny Trejo vehicle that might wind up being a direct-to-DVD release. We can only hope.
By the time Death Proof fires up, a change of pace and, most importantly, aesthetic is badly needed, so it’s a relief that Tarantino takes his stoned, sweet time setting up the female characters in his sui generis riff not on the slasher movie but on the conventions of the slasher movie. That understanding is crucial to appreciating what he’s up to with this very odd and very invigorating film. Most grindhouse movies are filler punctuated by the cool shit from the trailer, and Death Proof is no different. But somewhere along the line (or maybe by design), Tarantino fell in love with the filler, which, in any random slasher flick, would simply be rote character development indulged in to further the plot and space out the grisly killings. Even the greatest slasher film ever made, Halloween, sported some fairly perfunctory dialogue, meaning that it’s entirely possible Tarantino has contributed the first entry in this disreputable genre imbued with a soul.
As is the case with many notorious grindhouse pictures, Death Proof is about frustrating expectations. Does the film deliver some psyche-scarring carnage? Absolutely. Midway through the movie, Tarantino stages one of the most traumatic car wrecks ever put to film, and he concludes with an epic car chase that will be cited for years to come as an exemplar of the genre. But it’s the gals who linger in memory. Divided into two acts (another fascinating gambit), Death Proof first introduces viewers to three girlfriends preparing for a night of carousing and flirting in Austin, Texas. The alpha female is Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), a popular local DJ who’s way too enamored of her own dubious celebrity. Her pals are Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), who, by virtue of being the target of a practical joke instigated by Jungle Julia (which, as CHUD Message Board pimp Isao Kanemasa pointed out, references Don Siegel’s Telefon), is getting set up as the final girl.
That Arlene may not make it to the end credits is hardly a revolutionary narrative device; ever since Janet Leigh took her ill-fated shower in Psycho, that structural left turn has been reworked countless times. What’s most shocking about Arlene’s abrupt bad end is the fact that nothing remotely menacing is going on in Death Proof until Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) unexpectedly joins in on Jungle Julia’s practical joke. Mike’s request for a lapdance is an intrusion, and Tarantino’s decision to excise Arlene’s payoff as a "missing reel" gag underscores the seriousness of his affront. The guy’s cool is too studied; he’s really just a socially awkward interloper into a world where he does not belong, and he responds to his ostracizing by tearing the girls to pieces with a vehicle in which he cannot be harmed. Deconstruct that!
There’s been some discussion as to whether Stuntman Mike’s eventual comeuppance in Act Two is so drawn out that it actually turns audiences against the second group of girls who, via barely intimated transference, are exacting revenge on behalf of Arlene and her friends. To be honest, he does cede the upper hand fairly quickly to this new trio led by Zoe (stuntwoman Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracie Thoms), but it’s Rosario Dawson’s adorable Abernathy who initially wins our sympathy; siding with Stuntman Mike just means you’re a sad bastard who has trouble getting laid. And then there’s the wonderful Ms. Bell, whose awkward line readings are wiped out by the glow of her personality, the fearlessness of her stuntwork atop a Dodge Challenger and, finally, a moment so perfect I wouldn’t dare ruin it in print.
This is a totally shitty copout for a review of this length, but I honestly feel like I need a second viewing of Death Proof to precisely nail down what’s so special about it. Just as I regretted Terrence Malick’s decision to re-cut The New World after its Academy qualifying run at the end of 2005 (even though there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t improve it), there’s part of me that’s not looking forward to Tarantino’s two-hour assemblage of Death Proof. The number of filmmakers with his a) access to money, b) creative latitude and c) willingness to exploit both are few. And the fact that he’s not shy about turning in a work that will confound ninety percent of the moviegoing public elevates him to the level of a Brian De Palma, which means this is also the kind of work that will eventually marginalize him commercially. If that ain’t grindhouse, I don’t know what is.