One thing that baffles me about "Grindhouse" is how little mainstream press coverage it has received. We've got a legitimately unique, unusual film experience here and I've heard hardly a peep from the same people who were going on and on about that movie what with all the snakes on the plane and that other one with all the spartans. (Nothing against those films, by the way, I just don't see that they're news.) Perhaps the idea of recreating an old-school, independent theater double bill experience isn't that big of a deal, but how often do you hear about some film trying to do something unique at all? But whatever, even if the mainstreamers don't think this is something noteworthy, I do, and it proved to be a pretty damn good time. Furthermore, the unusual format did matter, I think, and helped make the film better than the sum of its parts.
The two features here are "Planet Terror" from Robert Rodriguez and "Death Proof" from Quentin Tarantino. Coming into this I was a much bigger Tarantino fan than a Rodriguez one, but the Rodriguez segment sounded more promising, and proved to be easily the better of the two, though "Death Proof" is certainly worth a watch too, even if it's easily Tarantino's weakest feature length work.
Though you may never have guessed it from the ads, which consist of nothing but Rose McGowan and here assault rifle leg, "Planet Terror" is a zombie film. Though the film as a whole is meant to recall the 70's, "Planet Terror" has the mid to late 80's written all over it. Furthermore, this ain't an update of the good zombie movies, like Romero made, but the bad ones, like Zombi 3 and After Death and numerous others. Some of those films were so bad that they weren't amusing anymore, but "Planet Terror" never comes close to crossing that line.
As with most zombie movies, the plot is of little interest. Basically, there's an outbreak of, uh, zombieism in a Texas town, and our cast of varied heroes must fight them off. It has a surprisingly large cast of characters and a number of subplots, but none of that matters much. It all just comes together as a rough, incredibly gruesome cheesefest, and it's a helluva lot of fun. Most significatly, though "Planet Terror" is essentially a comedy, it still feels genuinely affectionate towards it's dubious inspirations.
Rodriguez goes to great lengths to simulate the old theater/cheap movie experience, with a washed out, horribly scratched up print and rough technical aspects and editing. Watching the ads, I was worried that he might takes this stuff too far, but it works well and never too distracting. Rodriguez isn't afraid to be modern too, at times, with some fancier effects, though it's never so pristine as to take away from the old B-movie feel.
Zombie films, at least of this sort, are mostly about the gore, and Rodriguez delivers in spades, with lots of spewing blood, gruesome dismemberment and even liquefaction. (And liquification, in fact. We get both!) The humor is mostly of the lowbrow, grossout variety, but it's legitimately clever at some points too, which is more than you can say of most horror comedies. (The final delivery of the line "I never miss" had damn well better get a laugh out of you.) Beyond this, it still has some endearing performances, particularly from Michael Biehn as the sheriff and the main protagonist Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez, who inexplicably turns out to be quite a killing machine.
Tarantino's "Death Proof" has a more legitimately 70's vibe to it, coming off as a mix of old-school slasher and car movie with a dash of rape-revenge thriller thrown in their. That said, "Death Proof" is less committed to the concept as a whole, proves to be more technically sound and comes off mostly as a Tarantino movie. That's, obviously, not a bad thing in and of itself, but it would've been cool if Tarantino had been more committed to the concept.
Tarantino inevitably described "Death Proof" as a slasher movie where the killer uses his car as his weapon of choice. Kurt Russell is our killer, Stuntman Mike, and Russell does a great job, charming and menacing at the same time. Definitely the best turn we've seen from him in some time. The other characters are a bit more dubious, however. We've got two packs of female protagonists, most of them interchangeable, all of them standard Tarantino characters, but with a lot of the charm lopped off. Now, the endless dialogue is amusing about half the time, but we've got a lot of dubious material in their too. The major problem comes in the middle. The first 40 or so minutes of "Death Proof" are massively dialogue driven, but it's building to the first major chase/action/horror scene, and we actually get to deal with the Russell character some and learn about him etc. After the first major encounter, however, Tarantino goes back into dialogue mode, this time with no Russell and it starts to get wearying. In short, the first major talking section feels like exposition and build up, the second like filler. The final climax works very well, again, but much of the build up is pointless, and it takes so long to get there that it seems rather abrupt. In short, "Death Proof" could easily stand to have 10 minutes lopped off, even at its brief length. It's still cool and all, but I expect more from Quentin Tarantino.
The icing on the cake of the whole experience are the fake trailers which are, minute for minute, the most entertaining part of the film. These are definitely the most old-school part of the film, filled with the gratuitous violence and nudity, the choppy editing and the repeated titular references that defined exploitation film trailers. Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving" trailer is the best of them and is, within the limits of the form, genius. "Thanksgiving" is meant to be an early 80's, just after "Friday the 13th" style slasher movie, and Roth's recreation of the style is just spot on, but with plenty of intentional humor thrown in. I don't dare give away too many specific jokes, but Roth's having the killer be dressed up as a pilgrim is hilarious, and the outrageously awful narration is brilliantly written and performed. (...and this time there will be no leftovers...) You can check it out over at IGN, which you definitely should if you like slasher movies. Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS" isn't as strong overall, but it has a great concept perhaps the biggest laugh in the movie, which I won't give away, and the casting of Udo Kier is another great stroke. Rodriguez's trailer "Machete" is an 80's style actioner, though its plot appears remarkably similar to "Shooter". (More great voice over: "They ****** with the wrong Mexican" and "If you hire Machete to kill the badguy, you'd better make sure that bad guy isn't you".) Again, very funny. Edgar Wright's "Don't" trailer is the weakest of them, and is basically one joke, but it's a pretty funny joke, at least. .
All in all, "Grind House" does prove to be more than the sum of its parts, though the individual parts are quite cool by themselves. Make sure to see this in theaters.
Planet Terror: A-
Death Proof: B-
Overall Experience: B+
P.S. This movie does contain a brief appearance by Fergie. Just thought I should warn you.