Honestly, I'm not sure why Grindhouse wasn't a bigger hit. Although the theatrical release was slightly truncated, its one-hundred-and-seventy-minute run time was probably still a bit daunting for most people. Not to mention the fact that Tarantino and Rodriguez asked us to abandon a set of characters at the mid-way point and get familiar with a completely new cast, not once...but twice!
But even during my first viewing, I really didn't have any major issue with this. Probably because both segments were directed with tasteless verve, populated with over-the top performances and filled with the trappings of a long-extinct theater-going experience.
It's a philosophy which comes through loud n' clear in the trailer:
The first half of the film is dedicated to Planet Terror, a gruesome ode to zombie flicks directed by Robert Rodriguez. Smokin'-hot Rose McGowan plays Cherry Darling, a strip...er, go-go dancer who walks off the job in hopes of finding bigger and better things. Well, she certainly get her fill of the former after she reunites with her mysterious ex El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at a dodgy barbecue joint owned by Jeff Fahey's less-then hygienic J.T.
Unbeknownst to our unlikely protagonists, another drama is unfolding at a nearby military base. Certifiably bonkers Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) is attempting to extort a biochemical weapon from scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews), who deliberately releases the stuff into the air rather then hand it over. Needless to say, this noxious gas (codenamed "Project Terror") causes residents in the nearby town to transmogrify into pox-laden homicidal zombies. Eventually El Wray and Cherry form a posse to investigate the military base and put a stop to the outbreak.
Planet Terror is so completely over the top that it's critically outta sight. The performances are beyond broad and there's never any doubt as to whether or not someone is good or evil. The nature of the infection gives Rodriguez free reign to go completely overboard with buckets of creatively depraved splatter effects. Of particular note is the humorously unexpected fate of Abby and the drawn n' quartered demise of Tom Savini's character, Deputy Tolo.
Although very little screen time is dedicated to the genesis of the lethal gas or why it's being fought over so rabidly, it effectively serves as the film's raison d'eeccch-tre. The cast looks like they're having an absolute blast with the complete lack of restraint. Although there's a hint of self-consciousness in her performance, Rose McGowan is charmingly matter-of-fact and unpretentious. When she gets tricked out with her ludicrous-yet-iconic sidearm (sideleg?) she instantly fulfills one of the more original character arcs in cinema history.
Freddy Rodriguez is appropriately cocky as El Wray and when his secret skills are revealed (and conveniently left unexplained thanks to a timely "missing reel") he gleefully transforms into walking dynamite. Josh Brolin also makes the best of his limited screen time by playing Dr. William Block as the sort of ogre only found within the pages of an E.C. horror comic. Marley Shelton turns in a bravura and twitchy performance as Block's long-suffering wife, especially when her own anesthetics get turned against her. Finally, one of my all-time favorite character actors, Michael Biehn, gets a chance to shine as J.T's estranged brother, Sheriff Hague. Why this dude isn't picking up more checks is beyond me.
All told, Planet Terror is a no-hold's barred, pulpy, splatterfest that really embodies the grindhouse aesthetic while playing around with its conventions.
In some ways, Tarantino's segment isn't quite as loyal to the genre's low-brow origins but I think it ends up being a more original, substantial and rewarding film because of it. Death Proof begins by introducing us to three fun-loving gals: celebrity D.J. "Jungle" Julia Lucai (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her two pals Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito). They venture out to their favorite bar in Austin, Texas on Julia's birthday, unaware that they're being stalked by a psychotic stuntman named Mike (Kurt Russell).
Mike is a mentally damaged relic from another epoch who's gone completely off the deep end because everyone's too young to appreciate his glory days. He's challenged all of this rancor into the construction of a "death proof" car which keeps him safe during a crash but spells certain doom for passengers or anyone else in his path. This is soundly demonstrated when Mike kills poor Pam (Rose McGowan) and then murders the other girls in a deliberate head-on collision.
Fast forward a year later and it looks like history is about to repeat itself. Mike and his reconstituted vehicle are set to target four new girls: chatty Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), cute-but-dim Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), non-nonsense Kim (Tracie Thoms) and thrill-seeking Zoë (Zoë Bell). Mike confronts the gals during a muscle car endurance test but soon realizes that he's bitten off more then he can chew.
Soon the hunter becomes the hunted. Honestly, it's quite gratifying to watch Mike start whining like a weepy little bitch after the gals prove to be too much for him to handle. Their final revenge becomes the stuff of giddy triumph.
Although Death Proof's pedigree is pretty lowbrow, Tarantino can't resist investing in markedly distinct characterizations, top-notch performances and snappin' dialogue. As a result, the film rises above its superficial origins and becomes more than just the sum of its parts.
We all know that Tarantino is adept at characterization, performance, dialogue and set-ups but did anyone anticipate that Death Proof would include a car chase that belongs in the same hallowed pantheon as The French Connection, The Italian Job or Ronin? All I can say is "wow". Thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of real-life stunt woman Zoë Bell (who spends most of her screen time splayed out on the bonnet of an out-of-control 1970 Dodge Challenger), the scene is high-octane, nail-biting and rife with a genuine sense of jeopardy.
As if the two main "features" don't serve up enough entertainment value, both come fully loaded with a slew of vintage trappings. Intermissioned with fake "previews of coming attractions" (my personal favorite: Eli Roth's Thanksgiving), title cards pimping sketchy mexican food and a slinky animated panther warning us that what we're about to see is "restricted", Grindhouse reminds us of sneaking into the cinema as kids.
Which brings me to my main praise: watching Grindhouse makes you feel as if you're getting away with something. Leave it to nostalgia custodians Rodriguez and Tarantino for recognizing the appeal of this and following through on their vision; esoteric and niche as it may be.