By Scott Weinberg
You don't have to be old enough to know what the inside of a "grindhouse" feels like to get behind this boisterously overstuffed meal of a movie ... but it probably wouldn't hurt. Inspired by the countless exploitation flicks that played the inner-city movie houses and outer-city drive-ins during the 1970s and early '80s, "Grindhouse" is a gigantic meal of a movie -- provided you don't have a problem with non-stop murder, mayhem and mania as part of your cinematic diet.
Directed by two of today's most shamelessly enthusiastic genre geeks, "Grindhouse" is two full movies (and four pseudo-trailers) full of guts, brains, and gore galore. And the fact that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are now powerful enough to wedge their own passions into a project this undeniably strange is a testament to their passions and their obsessions. (Really, this is a damn risky project, and these two movie maniacs could have just stuck with something a lot less risky at this point in their careers.)
Long story short (and then we'll actually begin the review) is that "Grindhouse" is a bona-fide blast, a non-stop genre-fest from two guys who really know their stuff. Taken as a whole, "Grindhouse" is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and yet, for some of us, the thing feels wonderfully and ingratiatingly familiar -- as if the two movies were old friends from a movie-strewn childhood we never had. This is a big sweaty ball of entertainment from beginning to end, but it's not the mindless picnic of insanity that you may have been expecting. If cleverness is a form of intelligence (and I say it is), then "Grindhouse" is quite a bit smarter than most of what passes for "genre entertainment" these days, and I suspect that this is a movie the hardcore horror fans will be savoring for years to come.
Our first half of the double bill is Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," which tells the story of a small Texas town and the ways in which its colorful crew of citizens deals with a goopy outbreak of non-stop zombieism. There's not much in the plot department, which I mean as a compliment, but Rodriguez is so damn giddy about his ensemble, there's more than enough to fill an 85-minute running time. Suffice to say that a whole bunch of stock characters and walking stereotypes spend an hour and a half trying to avoid zombie infection -- and boy is it fun. We got Freddy Rodriguez as a mega bad-ass anti-hero, Rose McGowan as a jiggly go-go dancer who acquires a very handy machine gun leg when zombies snatch her real one, James Brolin as a scumbag doctor, Marley Shelton as his hypodermic-lovin' wife, Jeff Fahey as a sweaty-yet-lovable BBQ guru, Michael Biehn as a tough-talkin' sheriff, Quentin himself as a rape-happy soldier, and on and on it goes.
It's as if Mr. Rodriguez took all the coolest kills, characters, and craziness from only his favorite zombie flicks, threw 'em in a blender, and tossed the resulting stew up on the screen. And, of course, it's pretty damn delicious. "Planet Terror" almost never slows down, and when it does, it's usually so that something really bizarre, unexpected, or icky can take place. The movie is peppered with print scratches, cigarette burns, audio glitches, and missing scenes -- all in an effort to recapture that feeling of a movie print that's seen about a hundred too many trips through the projector. And the damn thing works like a charm. This is a funny, ferocious, and entirely lovable genre concoction, stuffed with solid actors who seem to be having a lot of fun with the material. Fast-paced, freakishly gory, and boasting a few unexpected surprises, "Planet Terror" is one of the best horror movies I've seen in years -- mostly because it's the bastard son of a thousand other horror movies.
Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" is a different animal entirely, and my biggest complaint about "Grindhouse" as a whole is this: "Death Proof," what with its few divergences into non-stop yet amusing chatter, would have been much better as the first movie, with the much speedier "Planet Terror" settling into the second spot. As much fun as I had with QT's flick, I must admit that I shifted in my seat a few times as it went on.
One or two scenes of the gals' "convo marathons" run on waaaaay longer than they need to, frankly, and I was just itchin' to get back to Stuntman Mike and his killer car. But I guess Tarantino knows what he's doing by this point (if I had his skills penning dialogue, I'd probably be in love with my own words too), plus it's a pretty arbitrary thing to complain about, all things considered.
Inspired by several movies mentioned onscreen (including "Vanishing Point," "Gone in 60 Seconds" (the original!) and "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry") Tarantino's "Death Proof" is two movies in one almost as much as "Grindhouse" is. One half of the flick is nothing but chicks talking about ... stuff. The other half is high-end highway mayhem that simply must be seen to be believed. The basic gist here is that Stuntman Mike (played rather awesomely by Kurt Russell) loves nothing more than meeting up with foursomes of fine young women, charming them in barrooms, and then chasing them down on the highway before killing them in rather ... automotive ... fashion. Victim group #1 consists of an Austin DJ and her three gal-pals, while victim group #2 contains real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (quite charming in her acting debut) and another trio of sassy young lasses. Aside from the street-centric carnage, "Death Proof" is pretty darn focused on the conversations held between these eight young women. Some might complain that the chatty Cathy scenes run on too long (and, again, that's a fair complaint if you're asking me), but when you're being treated to big, generous chunks of grade-A Tarantino Talk, I find it pretty hard to complain about stuff like pacing.
Plus, when QT gets down and dirty with his sequences of motorhead mayhem and hellacious highway pursuits, "Death Proof" is one of the most entertaining experiences in quite some time. Frankly I didn't know the guy had this type of "chase" mayhem in him, but I'm pleased to note that the guy handles hardcore hyper-kinetics with the best of 'em. It also doesn't hurt that he has Ms. Bell and a truckload of colorful young women in his cast -- plus it's a whole lot of fun to see former Disney star and perpetually likeable movie star Kurt Russell chewing his way through a character this irredeemably twisted. And while I certainly wouldn't spoil it for you, "Death Proof" packs a final scene that simply must be experienced in a crowded movie house. Lord knows I did, and the audience reaction is something I'll remember for years.
"Grindhouse" also offers a quartet of "faux" movie trailers, each one more entertaining than the last. I'll let you discover the surprises for yourself, but RR and QT were clever enough to hire directors like Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth for these mini-movies -- and each filmmaker brings a decidedly distinct set of skills to the party. At just over three hours in length, "Grindhouse" isn't just a throwback to cinema's slimier and seedier decades; it's an entirely heartfelt love letter to the movie geeks of the world who value shocks and jolts as much as tears and laughter. Oh, and it's got some really great music in there.
This doozy of a double feature is full-bore fun all the way (even taking into account my minor "pacing" issues with movie #2), overstuffed with more colorful components than most filmmakers even attempt. It's a smart, slick, and exceedingly over-the-top piece of community filmmaking that never once apologizes for its love of all things grungy, and the thing stands as a testament to the fine art of exploitation cinema. I certainly don't want to "overhype" the flick to my fellow horror freaks, but the thing not only entertained me for three straight hours; it actually sort of "spoke" to me, too, if that makes any sense at all. "Grindhouse" feels like it was made for me, specifically -- and I suspect that a whole lot of old-school movie geeks will soon feel the exact same way. A three-hour double-decker like this is, I think, a seriously dicey proposition for any filmmakers, but the fact that Tarantino, Rodriguez, and their Weinstein backers did it anyway, well, I'm just pretty damn impressed all the way around.