The exploitation era of the 1970s, a time of non-existent budgets, wooden acting, and lurid, melodramatic plot turns — to say nothing of its often shocking nihilism — was a glorious moment in the sun for film geeks and pleasure hounds alike, and more than ever, it warrants a revisiting. While it is impossible to fully recapture that decade’s post-Watergate cynicism, economic despair, and palpable racial tension (and reconstruction), such times — where, without a wink or a nod, artists, nut jobs, and brilliant madmen dared to put anything on screen — can be repackaged and delivered anew, even if they are stripped of their original social context. It can never be the same (empowered chicks don’t offend and appall like they used to), but as we can all admit that few original efforts are likely to come down the pike in a given year, it makes sense to emulate the best of the good old days. Above all, the trashy, seedy (and very grainy) films of yesteryear were an evening’s entertainment; fun, silly, and lacking the dull irony that has saturated so much of what we now see. As such, no one seems willing to go the distance. Pulling back, then, has been one of contemporary cinema’s most ominous turns. More than ever, we need stories that cut off without explanation; traffic in death without purpose; highlight violence without sense; and, most importantly, feature crude stereotypes that are not only exploited, but celebrated without fear of reprisal.
And so we turn to Grindhouse, a hair-over-three-hour double feature from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that hearkens back to the old Saturday night drive-in, or perhaps the crumbling theater on the wrong side of town — tou know, the one with the sticky floors, dirty restrooms, and ripped, unendurable seats. To add to the sense of authenticity, the film contains old-school trailers and a creaky advertisement for what has to be the worst restaurant in town. I think it’s supposed to be Mexican food, but it looks more like something Machete hacked off in the course of his war on whitey. While the coming attractions are shown before each feature, they linger in the mind throughout, as their charm and utter hilarity arguably outshine anything else we see. Take the preview for the aforementioned Machete, the best of the bunch: Not only does it get the film stock, narration, and awkward photography just right, it has the genius to know that in those heady days, exploitation films hit such a nerve because they featured despised minorities kicking white ass (Cheech Marin as a gun-wielding priest!) The star of Machete (Danny Trejo) is a grizzled day laborer hired by a no-good, double-crossing SOB to assassinate a senator, only to have the tables turned precisely at the moment of truth. As the deadpan narrator says, “They fucked with the wrong Mexican.” He’s armed to the teeth, yet utterly suave (he gets all the women, they remind us), and explosions and death follow in his wake. Rodriguez has crafted a mini-masterpiece, both technically and creatively, and the truest test of its intelligence is the fact that I would kill to see this movie that, uh, doesn’t yet exist.
Still, Thanksgiving (directed by Eli Roth) is no slouch, either, though it seems more of an obvious parody (Machete easily could have been made, and probably was under a different title). Once again, though, I would love to watch the movie it previews, if only to find out what stove the killer used to cook Grandma, as she seems to have been basted whole. Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. is, again, too silly to be real (unless directed by Ed Wood), but I couldn’t help but giggle every time that damned werewolf in Nazi duds picked up his machine gun. And there’s a killer cameo from Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu that’s so inspired, we don’t even ask ourselves why such a character would be in a movie about Nazi Germany. Finally, there is Don’t (directed by Edgar Wright), a terrifically idiotic piece that is on the same level of authenticity as Machete, and has a particularly funny (and well-edited) sequence that encapsulates pretty much every dumb horror film ever made. I can’t imagine Grindhouse without these bits, and they help create an overall mood of unadulterated joy. Remember when we had fun at the movies? These trailers help bring it all back.
The first half of the double feature, Planet Terror, is the far superior work; a mindless thrill ride that, at its core, understands the inherent appeal of zombies and what is to be done with them. I don’t think there’s a zombie flick I haven’t enjoyed, and while George Romero will always be the king, this Robert Rodriguez effort deserves to have the same degree of staying power. It remains high energy throughout, never pausing for any dialogue of import (people talk, but who knows, or cares, what they say?), while cranking up the blood, pus, and brain matter to extraordinary lengths. At its center, though, is Rose McGowan as Cherry, an exotic-dancer-turned-action-hero, who gives a performance so damned sexy that I nearly forgot the setting and stripped down for a sweaty session of self-yoga. She’s dynamite as all get-out, though she’s more than an extremely hot babe; she kicks ass with more gusto than many of the men she carries along the way. Sure, she cries now and again, and feels sorry for herself when she first loses her leg, but all that’s forgotten when she slams in a weapon in place of a prosthetic limb. Zombies fall by the dozens as she fires with deadly precision, and she also manages the most outrageous stunt of the piece, where she explodes through the sky, lands in the protected area of a military base, and wipes out a heavily fortified team of soldiers. As such, she’s the 70s sexpot made flesh: hard as nails, unblinkingly homicidal, and, in the end, pure as the driven snow, as she helps establish a peaceful community by the sea while the rest of the world succumbs to the zombie plague. She’s almost nunlike in the final scenes, though she’ll still end whatever lives she must to keep her people safe.
Forget the story — a toxic gas is released, turning everyone into the undead, and a military conspiracy is afoot — and instead consider such non sequiturs as how Bruce Willis factors in as the assassin of Osama bin Laden. There’s a bit of the topical and cautionary in the piece (as there was in all original exploitation films), but rather than parallel Romero’s more satirical jabs, Planet Terror simply revels in violence for its own sake. If decapitations aren’t enough, try a helicopter blade slicing through hundreds of the fuckers. If exploding BBQ joints don’t do it for you, then how about horror legend Tom Savini as a clueless deputy who just happens to get torn apart in a fashion even Romero hasn’t topped? And then there’s Josh Brolin (a dead ringer for his father) as Dr. William Block, an angry cuckold who spends part of the movie threatening his wife, and the other half trying to keep an infected hospital together in the midst of chaos. But as the bodies roll in, Block gives up the ship in the name of self-preservation. Block’s wife, Dakota (Marley Shelton), becomes somewhat of a hero herself, though it’s somewhat tarnished (or enhanced?) by her decision to give her young son a gun for protection while she tries to solicit her estranged father’s help. That the boy accidentally shoots himself in the head mere seconds after being given the weapon just might stand as the bravest cinematic moment of the year, as it violates a sacred rule of filmmaking — do no harm to the wee ones. Rodriguez has jumped the shark on occasion with his stupid Spy Kids movies, among other travesties, but killing a sweet, harmless little boy wipes the slate clean.
From the lost footage (a much-desired sex scene with McGowan — oh well, maybe the DVD) to the musical score, Planet Terror never stopped making me smile, and it’s one of the most guilt-free bloodbaths I’ve ever experienced. I even liked the Crazy Babysitter Twins, two obnoxious sluts who would normally drive me to the nearest cliff, yet seem wildly appropriate, given the story that surrounds them. Rodriguez, therefore, upholds his end of the bargain, and senses that if too much of the present creeps in (acknowledging that the special effects of the 1970s were never this good), it stops being “the Grindhouse.” Unfortunately, Tarantino didn’t feel the same sense of obligation, as his submission, Death Proof, is unwatchable tedium punctuated by two flawless action scenes. The initial car wreck and the final car chase, both as thrilling as any ever filmed, are almost enough to save the film, but I’m doubting that even the insertion of a long-buried, heretofore unknown cut of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon between the two set pieces would have saved the day. Except for an opening title sequence (a spot-on recreation, I must say), Tarantino seems to have forgotten that he was tipping his cap to a different era, not updating the genre to such an extent that it disappears altogether. Not only does he refuse to keep his movie in the spirit of exploitation, the resulting production is far too clean (no pops, hisses, or washouts, except for a “missing scene” moment that is more about denying us a lap dance) to be convincing. It’s unmistakably 2007, and for what we were promised, that’s an unconscionable betrayal.
The first mistake Tarantino makes is assuming that we want to hear his unbearable female characters yammer away in an Austin watering hole or a Tennessee café, when we’d much prefer them naked or dead. The first set of chicks, all brainless and nasty to a fault, have absolutely nothing to do, and they are saddled with dialogue so lifeless that I wanted to howl in pain like those Nazi werewolves. What’s more, they violate the first rule of exploitation, which is to shut the fuck up and let the titties and firearms take over. Interactions must either be over-the-top declarations, threats, or wisecracks (and even then kept to a minimum), or simply functional, forgettable words that move the story along to more bloodshed. As such, I kept checking my watch to see when Kurt Russell was going to show up, and when he finally did, his face — deeply lined, scarred, wholly of another time — said more with silence than any of the women did with their witless banter. We know that Russell (playing Stuntman Mike) is mysteriously stalking these girls — led by the truly horrible Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) — but I’m glad we never really find out why, as motiveless maniacs are true to the times under discussion. Russell, like previous has-beens John Travolta, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster before him, is finally being given the opportunity by Tarantino to be cool once again, and he’ll likely use this film as a long-overdue means to resurrect his career. He certainly deserves it. I only wish he had a better vehicle to justify his great performance.
The first car wreck — Mike follows the girls out to a deserted road at night, passes them by, and reverses course with lights out; a head-on collision just moments away — is extremely realistic, made stellar by using the different perspectives of each passenger to recreate the final seconds of the violent event. A severed leg flies this way, another girl explodes as if shot out of a cannon, and twisted metal screeches and soars to a climax so riveting, it’s bound to leave viewers breathless. All of the girls die horribly, though Mike survives, which is apt, given his “death proof” stunt vehicle. At that moment, I was hopeful: Perhaps the dippy dialogue and dull characters were intentionally off-putting, so as to force us to root for the homicidal stuntman. Far from being glamorous or sexy, then, women of this sort deserved to die without remorse or apology from a culture that had had enough of their kind. The suffering seems worth it, and Tarantino has his groove back in the time it takes to dispatch with a carload of vain bimbos. Instead, my hopes were dashed by the second half, as yet another group of girls dominate the story, while Russell disappears for what feels like an eternity. The impact is immediate: Without him, we simply don’t give a shit. Even Rosario Dawson and a sexy Australian stuntwoman weren’t enough to keep me engaged. Hell, they didn’t even make out.
Once again, we are face to face with people we couldn’t possibly care about, circling and hovering above their conversations with a frenzy not at all warranted by the complete absence of tension, drama, or insight. When the four chicks chat in a restaurant, for example, they eventually move to a tale about a ditch so unforgivably lame that I half expected Tarantino to walk into the frame and admit he was fucking with our minds. But no, he means every word, and even moves the camera around the table to simulate the diner scene from Reservoir Dogs, as if we had to be reminded of a time when he actually seemed fresh and exciting. And while Tarantino’s foot fetish is beyond tired at this point (the film even opens up on a pair of bare feet), the most excruciating recurring element of all is his insistence on having his characters always — and I do mean always — speak in the following manner: “OK, first of all, shut the fuck up. Second, you do not know what the fuck you are talking about. And third, you are way the fuck out of your element here.” It might be “A, B, and C,” or “1, 2, and 3,” but his characters refuse to discuss anything they can’t put into some kind of tri-part list. Accompanied by a smug, overbearing attitude, it grates on the nerves, and forces the sort of detachment I usually reserve for conversations with grandparents. If a point were being made, or an observation unexpectedly pointed peeked through, I might forgive the blacker-than-thou stock character, or the Red Apple cigarette packages, or the foot massage reference, or even Quentin’s absurd, ego-driven appearance (he’s paunchier then ever and looking every bit his age), but they exist to amuse themselves alone, forgetting that there’s a paying audience that might care to be included now and again.
Things pick up again when the girls decide to visit a local yokel and take a classic muscle car (the Dodge Challenger featured in the mutually admired Vanishing Point) out for a spin. The Aussie (Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracey Thoms) want to fuck around with an old stunt (they work at just that on a film shoot), only to run into an eager Mike, who has been waiting to kill again. What follows — Mike is in command at first, only to lose control and turn victim — is beautifully filmed, proving that when he gets over himself and moves beyond pseudo-clever dialogue that lost its luster years ago, QT is one hell of a director. The two cars race, collide, spin, and dart, while the soundtrack has us immersed in classic chase scenes from days gone by. I much preferred having Mike as the demented stalker, if only because his would-be victims are perfect fodder for his crimes. And Russell — wide-eyed, laughing with childlike delight, even looking into the camera with a delicious wink — is having the time of his life, because he knows there are few things better than sitting in a darkened theater watching fast cars, hot chicks, and impending death.
Only Mike turns into a giant pussy and, having been shot, weeps like a little girl, and even apologizes to avoid further injury. The turnabout chase — with Mike as the mouse, alas — set the theater on fire, and at its conclusion, I even heard applause. Yes, the ass-kicking Mike receives — followed by the most insanely abrupt “The End” I’ve ever seen — is delightful, but it seems too redemptive for such wicked trash. The chicks are strong at last (that’s one rule Tarantino did follow), but they never go to the trouble of earning our love. Their moment of triumph is theirs alone, and the true source of glee is bloodied and horizontal on the pavement. Whereas Rodriguez expresses deference and lets his talent speak for him, Tarantino wants to keep the genre all to himself, substituting narcissism for the voice we all know he has.