Review by John Dodd
Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
(guest directors Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie)
The first must see movie of 2007 has arrived. Grindhouse is for all those guys who spent their teenage years in theaters or (as in my case) in front of the VCR watching hours of cheap monsters, excessive gore, and abundant bare breasts.
Grindhouse was produced as a loving tribute to the by-gone era of grindhouses, drive-ins, and exploitation films produced in the late 60s through the early 80s. These films gave the viewer what he wanted to see (sex, blood, nihilism) with little attention to finesse or art. Some might question the idea of a 53 million dollar exploitation film with Bruce Willis and Sidney Poitier’s daughter. Nay sayers may also point to the incredulous idea of a three hour homage to films that were not overly good, in the objective sense of the word, to begin with.
I dismiss all such objections. Grindhouse is a lot of fun. Some cutting might have helped an occasional lapses in pace, but this is the first film in 2007 that I did not get up to go pee during. Besides passing the piss test, how many other movie going experiences offer double features anymore?
The first feature is Planet Terror, which resembles a schlocky low-budget zombie movie. The model is Night of the Living Dead where survivors are held up in a secluded area defending off hoards of undead. The cast of characters include a tough sheriff, inept deputies, a nurse in mourning, a stripper, and a mechanic with the killing know-how. All hold up in the Bone Shack ran by J.T., BBQ maker extraordinar.
The story moves fast and furious with tongue in cheek and gore aplenty. From a tank of amputated testicles to a dripping, oozing phallus, Planet Terror has enough gross out moments to satisfy fans of Troma movies. It’s also fun to see the cast interact. Michael Biehn, the onetime king of 80s action films (Terminator, Aliens, Timebomb), plays the sheriff. Jeff Fahey of the TV show The Marshal plays J.T. and gets the role of his career. These two have the best dialogue while Rose McGowan as stripper Cherry Darling makes watching easy on the eyes.
My only (mild) complaint is that Planet Terror is a bit too tongue in cheek. When one watches a zombie film from the 1970s, no matter how ridiculous they become (and they get pretty darn ridiculous) the filmmakers, either out of ignorance or out of cynicism, took their story dead seriously. For example, let’s take Dr. Butcher M.D., a teenage favorite. There was a film with zombies, cannibals, a psycho doctor, and a woman chained to the world’s giant Jell-O mold all served up without a wink at the camera and thus making the whole mess endearing. Planet Terror is first and foremost self-aware and aware of all the films that inspired it. This is not actually bad, but it does make for a film that is more splatstick than scary, less Evil Dead than Evil Dead 2.
I’m being nitpicky. With more blood than The Hills Have Eyes remake and the best coitus interruptus in movie history, Planet Terror kicks the undead ass of Land of the Dead.
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof rounds out the double bill. A combination psycho on the loose picture and car chase spectacular, the feature has Kurt Russell playing Stuntman Bob, an impotent nut with a custom hotrod built to withstand any crash. It is as safe as it is, with skull and crossbones for decoration, scary. Bob gets his kicks by running his car into the unsafe vehicles of pretty young women. Unlike the more infamous psycho films like Maniac or Last House on the Left, Russell’s character is pushed into the background. The stars are the women who have caught his eye, including two Hollywood daughters, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Jordan Ladd (the gymnast from Club Dread), as well as Rose McGowan making her second Grindhouse appearance.
Death Proof has received the lion’s share of critics’ praise, which says a lot negatively. Critics were not the intended target audience for any film playing in a 70s grindhouse. Death Proof shows off a good car chase in its final twenty-five minutes. The rest of the feature consists of people in cafes and bars talking. Although the conversation is about movies, TV shows, and dope, it is still talk and not action. This may be a trait of its director, but Death Proof would have made the average grindhouse patron to either nod off or wander off in search of something more immediate. Tarantino shows that while he clearly loves the exploitation films of old, he cannot quite bring himself to make one.
This is not to say that on its own terms, Death Proof is a failure. As usual, the film references provide active viewing. I caught Telefon and Dixie Dynamite but missed Used Cars and Convoy (and I’m a Peckinpah fan!). The actors give good performances. I especially liked stuntwoman Zoe Bell playing a stuntwoman named Zoe. She is surprisingly good and leaves the impression of being one tough broad. The car chase, when it finally comes, does deliver. Tarantino also provides a doozy of a last shot. I liked Death Proof, but if I had been an exploitation producer in the 1970s and an auteur wanted to sell me Death Proof, I would have said: cut ten minutes, make the psycho scarier, and get the women out of their clothes.
There is much more to Grindhouse. I will leave its best moments (like the fake trailers by guest directors) to be discovered by the viewer. I am saddened that Grindhouse seemed to have been a disappointment in its first weekend. This is the most entertainment that a red blooded, sleazy movie watching, American boy can have at the movies anymore.
To end, I would like to highly recommend Sleazoid Express by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, a book about the grindhouses of New York City. Buy it and read it! For those that may not be as experienced with the films Grindhouse is paying tribute to, here is a list of the best of some of the major grindhouse genres. Line up that queue at Netflix and dig through those VHS clearance bins.
Best Biker Gang:
Best Blaxploitation Flick:
Best Car Chase Movie:
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
Best Chop Sockey Not Starring Bruce Lee:
The Chinatown Kid
Best Gangster Film from Italy:
Violent City (aka The Family)
Best Giallo (European Thriller) Not Directed by Dario Argento:
The Slasher Is a Sex Maniac (aka So Sweet So Dead)
Best Outlaws on the Lam Picture:
The Great Texas Dynamite Chase
Best Revenge film:
Best Slasher Movie Not Featuring Jason, Michael, or Freddy:
Best Spaghetti Western Not Directed by Sergio Leone:
The Big Gundown
Best Film about Women in Prison:
Best Zombie Film Not Directed by George Romero:
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Best Title for a Grindhouse Movie:
The Great Hollywood Rape Slaughter
(haven’t seen it myself, but who can argue with a title like that?)