always known that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodgriguez love trashy old
b-movies at least as much as chicks and music. They sketched out their own a
decade ago in From Dusk Till Dawn, and now they’ve finally gone full bore.
The three-hour blast called Grindhouse exhumes, re-examines and
reinvents the film’s namesake style. In the spirit of schlock, the parts are
often greater than the whole, but those parts are so violently memorable I have to forgive any reluctance to trim the fat.

Grindhouse, of course, is also a nod to the
old-fashioned double feature.* Robert Rodriguez supplies the opener, Planet
, while Tarantino serves the knockout upper-cut, Death
. Overarching everything is packaging that really deserves it’s
own sidebar review: both films are digitally distressed and bumpered by
old-timey trailers and feature announcements. There are missing reels (to be
‘found’ for DVD and possibly Cannes) and ads for horrific Mexican food. The
bilious enchiladas actually made my mouth water, as the ad was so close to one in
theaters I haunted near my
West Texas high school.

obsessives get their own satisfying entr�e thanks to a quartet of faux
trailers. Werewolf Women of the SS, Rob
Zombie’s Ilsa-esque submission, is more oddity than
raunchy spectacle. It recalls his White Zombie videos more than dirty old
cinema. But Rodriguez (the Danny Trejo vehicle Machete) and Edgar Wright (faux import Don’t) nail the tone with paper-thin ideas and lurid promotion.
Both trailers are total screamers. Don’t,
in particular, exhumes the fast-buck spirit Planet Terror ultimately
can’t channel.

Even more
successful is Eli Roth’s proposed seasonal slasher Thanksgiving, which is so good I’m almost willing to forgive his
two throwaway features. (Tarantino quickly enables his return to my shit list
by handing him an awful speaking role.) I don’t want to see Thanksgiving made as a feature, because
I know what Roth does with 90 minutes, but I’ll gleefully watch this trailer a
dozen times on YouTube and DVD.

equally easy to love Planet Terror, a gooey, fast-paced
zombie extravaganza fueled by a passion for John Carpenter and Return
of the Living Dead
. It lingers often on the stunning Rose McGowan and
values the explosive headshot as the most common currency. Finally, Rodriguez looks
as if he’s truly letting loose; the cheap-ass shotgun sparks and cartoony blood
of Desperado
are replaced with guns and gore that are no less artificial but
infinitely more visceral.

plotting is just as explosive. You’d need a triple feature of video nasties to
assemble a collection of creatures, assholes, weirdos and BBQ to rival what’s
on screen here. It’s energetic in the sort of way a filmmaker can only pull off
when there are no pretensions. I can see why Devin and many others suggest it
should be the headliner. By comparison, Tarantino’s Death Proof is talky,
slow, indulgent and virtually infuriating, at least to an audience who just
came for the kills.

anyone intimately familiar with the schlocky grindhouse spirit will immediately
recognize feature number one as what Detective Dignam would call a ‘lace
curtain motherfucker’ — a rich kid masquerading as one of the blue-collar
commons. This movie is too full of face melting, prosthetics and CPU-intensive
details to ever slink through the
42nd Street hellholes it’s trying to recall.
The only credible grindhouse detail in the movie is a sign reading ‘Military
Base 2 Miles’, and even then Rodriguez spends too much money by not reusing the
same shot every time it pops up.

But who
cares, when it’s the most entertaining movie he’s made since From
Dusk Till Dawn
? The b-movie ethos prods the director to finally accept
what he’s always been: a smart guy making high-octane dumb movies. Now he can get
away without recognizable human characters, dialogue or any other highfalutin’
concerns. Without such distraction, Rodriguez channels his ADD into a tasty
fluff confection of corn syrup and latex.

And then
there’s Death Proof, certain to infuriate audiences worldwide. I want
to call it Tarantino’s best since Jackie Brown; the highlights
certainly shine as bright as his best moments. And yet the degree to which it
uses lowbrow conventions to confound every expectation has me second-guessing
my own response. It’s definitely not just pecking order that places it last on
the bill, however, as there’s nothing in any reel of Planet Terror that can top
the 100mph spectacle of Death Proof’s final two.

reels, however, trail after several others in which Tarantino’s love for the
French New Wave (and himself) shine through more fiercely than anything else.
Now, the grindhouse convention most easily forgotten is that you’ve got to wait
for the good stuff. Which typically means trying not to doze through
interminably extended passages of dialogue and plot meant, somehow, to justify
the rape/violence/monster/chase the audience is really there to see.

Tarantino makes us wait. In a neat move that might be ruined in the promised
longer cut, the movie is split in two, following two groups of women. They
talk. A lot. Their dialogue is not often scintillating.

The first
group, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier and (at a distance) Rose
McGowan, are a pretty regular bunch just out for a night on the town. The other
(Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is more in
control of their lives; three of the four are well-traveled members of a movie
crew. Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms are actually bad-ass stuntwomen.

the two groups is Stuntman Mike, one of Kurt Russell’s most memorable roles.
His self-confidence is his Chevy Nova, fitted with roll bars and plexiglass to
keep him safe during life-threatening stunts. Out of the driver’s seat, though,
he’s just another dude who can’t get it going with hot women. Which explains,
in part, why he stalks them with vehicular malice.

structure is inspired, because it suggests the sort of metaphysical
implications that made The Hitcher so much fun. Is one
group of women the spiritual mirror or recreation of the other? Stuntman Mike
exists, but to what extent is he human? The guy could be a personification of
death or, as two crowd-rousing shots of Mike breaking the fourth wall suggest, just the movie violence we love come to life.

(Second viewing edit: Maybe only one break in the 4th wall, actually. Reason to go see it again…)

I’m most
intrigued by the last one, because this movie is as much commentary as it is
recreation. A hell of a lot of people will quickly think “why am I
watching this?” and rightly so. Why are we investing
in a quartet of women we know are doomed to a miserable death? After that fate
indeed comes to pass, why do we do it again when the movie strongly asserts
that nothing will be different the second time?

why are the scenes of inhuman behavior more appealing than the lives of vibrant,
beautiful young women? Here’s where it gets complicated, though:
the most honest answer offered in Death Proof is that they’re not, if the women
aren’t willing to rise (or sink) to the same violent instincts as the killers
and psychos we’re ostensibly rooting against.

This is
nothing new to anyone who’s seen female revenge flicks like I
Spit On Your Grave
or Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Tarantino
hasn’t only seen those films, he’s ingested them so thoroughly that it’s
difficult to tell where Thriller ends and Kill

He may
have critical aspirations, but crucial letdowns restrict the film’s flow.
Jordan Ladd is typically just there, and both Poitier and Thoms are saddled
with dialogue a great actor would struggle to live out. As actors, they are not great. Thoms, in particular,
is more caricature than character, and she’s in the group of women we’re
supposed to be really rooting for. Zoe Bell�s delivery is consistently odd, but
at least she feels as real and vital as we�re meant to believe.

is too smart to let shitty acting ruin his movie, so I’m willing to give him
the benefit of the doubt; i.e. he’s creating real b-level grindhouse and
rubbing our face in it. But he’s also self-indulgent enough to think he’s
getting away with more than he really is. And nothing explains why he cast Eli Roth, who can’t carry a
line of dialogue any more than he could a Volkswagon.

When the
talking does finally stop, the last two reels throw down some of
the most overcranked car sequences I’ve ever seen. Adaptation and Final
Destination 2
, previously tied in the most savage car wreck awards, get
shown up handily. And when stuntpeople Zoe and Mike battle each other on the
road, Tarantino (credited as cinematographer, incidentally) acts on lessons
learned from Jackie Chan’s directorial output, dropping the camera back far
enough to let the drivers truly strut. It’s phenomenal, especially when you see
what Zoe Bell means by riding shipmast.

exultant thrill of seeing two muscle cars beat the hell out of each other flows
cross current to the layer of fear Tarantino brilliantly maintains. By the time the big car chase rolls around, we’ve seen
how nasty he’s willing to be, and this is the first
movie where I’ve felt sustained fear for a character in a long time. It’s exhilarating.

for sadness: audiences bitch-slapped into idiocy by three Fast and the Furious movies
probably won’t even get it. But you will. And while Planet Terror draws out
easy laughs, Death Proof, high concept aside, is the film that’ll have you
slamming down the hammer on the drive home, and probably feeling a residual
twinge of apprehension while you do it.

7.5 out of 10

Note: This is probably the most likely to change review score I’ve ever given.

*Which hasn’t been utterly decimated by DVD. Atlanta’s
Starlight Six drive-in, for example, is where I’ll be this weekend, catching a
de facto triple feature of Grindhouse and some other (more than likely) pile of
crap horror flick. We’ll have lawn chairs and a cooler of beer. Feel free to
stop by.