Review: Grindhouse

Decades ago, grindhouses were squalid downtown movie theaters that catered to social rejects, transients, and the thirsty movie fan who could spend an entire day watching double features of B-films and assorted coming attractions. "Grindhouse" (IMDb listing) is a resurrection of this long lost exhibition standard, birthed from the vast and well-funded imaginations of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The two heavyweights of homage have joined forces to recreate the grindhouse experience for today's safe and restless multiplex culture. The result is a miraculous opportunity to relive past trash cinema glory and cook in the heat of two directors completely in their happy place.

Planet Terror

The event kicks off in a big way with Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," the first and only film of "Grindhouse" to lean into the spirit of the past with everything its got.

When a biological weapon is released into the air, turning residents of a small Texas town into bloodthirsty zombies, it's up to a small band of survivors to fight off this plague of undead. Led by the mysterious Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan, the unofficial MVP of the two movies), the team has to fight through an endless bloodbath to find refuge.

Degrading his "print" to make it look as though it's spent some rough years making the rounds in projection booths across America and writing a screenplay laden with gore and violence, Rodriguez takes the mission of "Grindhouse" very seriously.

I can't think of a better way to start off the double feature than Rodriguez's splatter/zombie flick. "Planet Terror" has it all: gooey guts, fleshy actresses (Stacey "Fergie" Ferguson and Marley Shelton also appear), go-go dancers with machine guns attached to their severed leg stumps, and enough blood-spattered action to put the stamp of exploitation on the whole endeavor. Rodriguez has come to play with this film, and his enthusiasm is contagious. You simply can't hate a movie where one of the villains (Naveen Andrews) carries around a souvenir bag of human testicles.

Rodriguez is taking his cues from the John Carpenter filmography of the early 1980s, all the way down to the bump … bump … bump … synth-heavy score. It's a neat rocket back in time to Carpenter's heyday, and used as a springboard, it permits the filmmaker to explore these zombie roots in less stylized ways than he's typically known for.

Save for a few winky character rest stops, "Planet Terror" is a free-for-all action fest, but also saves ample room for Rodriguez to horse around with his characters and indulge his endless appetite for absurdity. Most of it is reserved for Cherry, a near-stripper with stand-up comedy aspirations, who later in the film uses the grenade function on her leg-gun to propel herself over a concrete wall, raining bullets down on the bad guys as she descends. Oh my, this film is a hoot.

With missing reels, melted frames, print scratches, and supporting work from grizzled vets such as Michael Parks, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, and legend Tom Savini, "Planet Terror" is a genre apple pie that abuses the potential of the overall double bill premise with the most ease and accessibility. It's also the finest, most cleanly inspired work Rodriguez has churned out in years.

Death Proof

After feasting on zombies, admiring Rose McGowan mowing down the enemy with her heavily armed leg, and wiping bits of brain off your lap, Quentin Tarantino strolls in to put the brakes on the whole "Grindhouse" experiment.

By day, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, in a masterful performance) is a smooth talking bar hound with a weakness for nachos and women. By night, Mike turns into a killer, stalking ladies with his "death proofed" automobile. After an evening of homicide, Mike makes the mistake of carelessly picking his next target: four young women (Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who know a thing or two about high impact stunt driving.

If "Planet Terror" is constantly in your face, "Death Proof" stays deliberately at an unnerving distance. Tarantino's tribute is paid to the road rage films of the 1970s, the crowning achievement being Richard Sarafian's scrappy "Vanishing Point." However, instead of being straight-up about his fandom, Tarantino has decided to attack the backwoods demolition derby theme through his specialty: salty, rolling fields of dialogue.

The characters talk in "Death Proof," and talk, and talk some more. This is the most verbose piece of writing the filmmaker has ever attempted to photograph, and stuck in a film like "Grindhouse" it's tough to understand what Tarantino is after here with his endless pages of banter and monologues. After inhaling pixy sticks with Rodriguez's offering, Tarantino's film is a slow boil (and very lenient with the fake print damage and other cosmetic roughing up), which, at first, upsets the flow of "Grindhouse." Where's the mayhem? The sleaze? Well, it takes time to arrive at those points of satisfaction.

At first, "Death Proof" is a lazy ditty drinking in the sights and pints of Austin, Texas. Only after a meticulous set-up does murder start to occur. Next, we meet the fated foursome who dare to live out their gearhead dreams. Here, Tarantino's script goes into a dialogue coma; each actress getting a fair share of speeches and reactions, eating up a full 30 minutes of the feature. Finally we arrive at the money shot: the full-on, go-for-broke car chase between Stuntman Mike and his agitated pursuers.

It's a strange mix to explain and even more bizarre to watch unfold. Tarantino, being the ace filmmaker he is, works the audience like a puppet, lulling the viewer into a state of peace before unleashing not one, but two incredible, booming sequences of vehicular dynamite, the last culminating in a 20-minute-long chase that pitches horror and laughs at the same speed. The payoff for such patience is that Tarantino has slapped on an ending that needs to be seen to be believed.

"Death Proof," unlike the title suggests, is not as ominous as one might expect. It works best on a brain soft from the "Grindhouse" experience; a body weary from sitting for three hours and hungry for that final kick in the jaw. Even if it takes an eternity to get there, Tarantino saves his masterstrokes for the finale, sending the audience out with a cheer and in a fit of giggles.

Shown during the intermission and before "Planet Terror" is an assortment of faux theatrical trailers, some promoting a future "Grindhouse" idea, while the others are simply wild tangents of imagination that should never see the light of day. Coming from Eli Roth (the lame serial killer send-up "Thanksgiving"), Edgar Wright (the flashy, Argentoesque "Don't!"), Rodriguez (the day laborer action carnival "Machete"), and Rob Zombie (a question mark with "Werewolf Women of the S.S."), the trailers are the cherries on top of this celluloid sundae. They add the perfect dash of immersion to this already flaming piece of indulgence, and I'm thrilled the filmmakers put in the effort. The intermission is actually the worst time to make a break for the bathroom. Save that for the second act of "Death Proof."

Wrapped up neatly in a 185-minute bow, "Grindhouse" is as pure a theatrical experience as they could possibly make in today's in-and-out marketplace. It's a heavily stylized, volatile, atomic sensory shockwave that is so hip and ice cool, you'll need to visit MySpace just to bring your overall awesome back down to a manageable level.

Filmfodder Grade: A