Let’s face it: Just the premise of directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino joining forces to create a double feature of schlock in tribute to the films of their upbringing is about as tantalizing as movies get these days. As the details emerged (the film would be scratched to give an old-school, run-down look, there would be deliberate jump cuts, the old “missing reel” title cards would show up at inopportune time, etc.) it seemed as though Grindhouse would be can’t-miss entertainment.
Well, half of it is. The festivities begin with a superb faux trailer for a film called Machete, directed by Rodriguez and starring one of the director’s go-to actors, Danny Trejo. Knives fly and baddies fall. The tone is set. The first feature is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which delivers everything we, the audience, sign up for. Gruesomely over-the-top and filled with enough giddy thrills to get even the most seasoned of film fans jumping from their seat, Rodriguez knows how to establish the attitude that permeated these grindhouse theaters long before most of his current audience was even born.
The plot: A military biological test has gone horribly wrong, leaving a population of bubbly-faced zombies that must be combated so that a frizzy-haired scientist (Naveen Andrews) can complete his antidote. Among the few who aren’t infected are Cherry (McGowan), who has a machine gun for a leg, and Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a martial arts expert. They must work together to fend off the never-ending hordes of “sickos.” If it sounds cheerfully sleazy, it should.
Barely stopping for dialogue or exposition, Rodriguez piles on the cheese and gore from minute one – and always one-upping it in the next scene. Bullets fly, heads explode, and a scene involving Tarantino himself as a rapist will have entire audiences cringing in disgust. It’s beautiful.
Three more fake trailers precede Tarantino’s Death Proof, and they’re all winners. Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead fame, directs Don’t Scream, a masterpiece of repetition for laughs. Rob Zombie directs Werewolf Women of the S.S., a take on the little-known (at least to mainstream audiences) horror sub-genre of Nazi exploitation flicks. This is offensive trash at its finest. Lastly, Eli Roth checks in with Thanksgiving, which makes so little sense it actually helps its own cause. A murderer is on the loose, decapitating teenagers and assaulting unsuspecting families on Turkey Day. The crowd had reached its excitement high at this point…
…then Death Proof started. With all due respect to Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker I have always admired, I have no clue what he’s thinking here. Not only does Death Proof take nearly an hour to truly get revved up (pun intended), it is dragged down by four of the most annoying female performances of recent memory. Didn’t someone, at some point, realize that the first forty-five minutes of Death Proof suck the air out of the theater?
Death Proof follows the exploits of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a washed-up has-been who has only stories to woo young women with in the hopes of scoring. As would be the case, he only uses the stories as a device to lure young women into his car to kill them. One especially unlucky girl finds this out the hard way.
The story then switches gears and follows four other women as they are stalked by Stuntman Mike. The only problem is that these girls know how to drive and fight, and he’s in for a car chase he’ll never forget.
Tarantino’s excessively talky script is a mess, and it’s clear that he had final cut since no one else would be able to get away with this. In it he has created four endlessly obnoxious females for whom I was wishing Stuntman Mike would swiftly dispatch. An entire scene of their banter is captured via Tarantino’s patented “360 degree table” approach, where characters talk and talk while the camera fluidly circles. Nothing of much substance is ever spouted, as Tarantino instead elects to namedrop and cuss in the hopes of keeping our attention.
It’s really a shame that Death Proof gets off to such a sluggish and perplexing start because the final half-hour-long chase sequence is mesmerizing. Real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell is really strapped to the hood of the girls’ car, and it is truly mystifying that she is still in one piece after what is depicted. Considering most chase scenes anymore are spiffed-up with CGI and cheap camera tricks, it is a rush to see one as they were meant to be shot.
Yet the whole shebang comes across as too little, too late. The rank odor of the first two acts is simply too much to overcome, and if a writer and director like Tarantino can’t overcome it, no one can.
The combined effort leaves Grindhouse as a mild recommendation, more so for those who already know what they’re getting themselves into. Make no mistake about it; none of this material is for the squeamish. For those who want to witness a daring, albeit flawed, original freak show from two of Hollywood’s elite directors that could turn the industry on its side, this is the only movie you’ll need to see all year.
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Length: 185 Minutes
Rating: R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, terror, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use.
Theatrical Release: April 6, 2007
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (fake trailer segment “Machete”) (segment “Planet Terror”) & Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”) & Eli Roth (fake trailer segment “Thanksgiving”) & Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment “Don’t Scream”) & Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (segment “Planet Terror”) & Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”)
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn