PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF
Here in the US these two movies were designed and released as a double feature with trailers for fictional movies in between. They were released under one unifying name that starts with a ‘G’ that is a word used to describe the shitty theaters that used to churn out sleazy horror, sexploitation, kung fu and blaxploitation movies back in the day.
I am not going to be using the g-word in this review, because I am sick and fucking tired of hearing it. It’s a perfectly legitimate title for this concept, but here is the problem. Mr. Tarantino is a huge fan and expert on these types of movies, he is the human IMDb judging from some of those interviews. So I don’t mind seeing him talk about it in every article about KILL BILL VOLUME 1 and then KILL BILL VOLUME 2 and then when they announced this g-word movie, and then while he was filming it and now to promote its release. Tarantino can use the g-word all he wants, he has earned it. So I don’t mind him and the trailers for his movie trying to explain to the kids what the g-word means.
That’s him, that’s his thing. But it makes me want to jump out a window to read the guy from the local newspaper or the dumbed down weekly entertainment magazine deciding that he too has to explain to you what it is.
You know what man, we know what it is. If we didn’t know what it was, we could look it up on the internet like we did when they put out those ads for DISTRICT B13 that pretended like everybody knew what “parkour” meant. The point is, we can handle this without you, we don’t believe that you have any personal knowledge of this subject. So shut the fuck up.
A couple years ago you could’ve read 150 articles about the same movies being referred to as g********e today, and you wouldn’t see more than a handful of uses of the g-word. You would see them called B movies, exploitation movies, drive-in movies, cult movies, genre movies, midnight movies. Sometimes they’d use words to describe them like slashers, sleazies, cheapies, no-budget, grade-Z, and yes, every once in a while, g—-house. You’d probaly even see “psychotronic” or “video nasties” used at least as often as g********e. Now Tarantino drops the word in enough interviews, all the sudden it’s g this and g that. G this that and the other. This was already bugging me after KILL BILL, now it’s the fuckin bubonic plague. I’ve seen reviews by my internet colleagues where the word is used as many as ten times. Come on, man. If Tarantino used the phrase “jump off a bridge” too many times would you use the phrase “jump off a bridge” too many times? I hope not. Let’s put that bitch to rest, please.
The worst part is Tarantino really fucking loves these movies, for real, he sees beauty in them that Joe Local Paid Movie Critic will never see even wearing night vision goggles. But by the time it’s written up in the magazine it comes off like “hey everybody, let’s have some fun wink wink look at these funny old movies, it’s so stoopid I LOVE IT!”
Going to movies on 42nd street is not a part of my life experience. I understand it smelled like pee and a guy was jerkin off or something, I believe is what I read. Apparently the print quality was poor and a rat was fuckin two spiders over in the corner – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But I do like alot of these movies. I had a chance to literally go to the mat for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I turned it down, but I would have to say I respect it more than the average joe. Most people don’t get the opportunity to turn down that opportunity. So I understand the nostalgia, the fetish for the look of scratches on film and old fashioned studio logos and the sound of the trailer narrator’s voice. I dig all those things, I want to see them, but I also want to see some good movies. I want to see that really good g-word movie you were hoping to see every time you went into the g-house, not the other ones that you usually got. The carrot on the end of the stick, the light at the end of the tunnel, the light that’s shining on a carrot. Don’t let me down, boys.
First up in the double bill is PLANET TERROR by Robert Rodriguez. This is a cartoony take on a gloomy zombie movie. Bruce has a small role as a special ops badass who, it is noted, killed bin Laden. (Yippee kay yay.) They don’t mention whether or not he let Geraldo bronze the head. Anyway, Bruce is involved in an incident which causes the release of a deadly gas which turns the inhabitants of the nearby Texas town into “sickos,” melty faced cannibal motherfuckers. The story follows a couple different characters as they try to fight off the zombies.
Rodriguez seems like a pretty cool guy, he’s a dude that took the money from volunteering for medical experiments and built it into a multi-million dollar full service movies studio and effects company that he runs out of his house. Holy shit now that I put it that way the guy is fucking Scarface. Anyway, I think he’s one of those guys who’s both underrated and overrated, depending on who you ask. I love his MARIACHI trilogy and some of the others are fun but usually a mixed bag. PLANET TERROR is no different.
This movie is the fetishistic all-surface homage that you expect out of the g-house project. But not so much an homage to the g-word as to my man John Carpenter in his sci-fi mode. The night skies and fog and the helicopters remind you of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. And the score (by Rodriguez, he has to play every role like Eddie Murphy in NORBIT or Tom Hanks in POLAR EXPRESS) is mostly retro keyboard blorts and buzzes like Carpenter used to do, with an occasional slice of Goblin. Good stuff. The movie is shot digital like he always does now but then he layers it with all kinds of phony grain, blur, scratches and broken splices. I think he kind of overdoes it but it’s a fairly authentic look.
The characters are .5 dimensional. Rose McGowan’s one-legged stripper Cherry Darling comes the closest to bringing something extra to her cartoon emotions. I like the opening credits of her dancing in the club, ending with her in tears. At the end she gets a machine gun for a leg and uses the same go-go moves to plow down motherfuckers. And when she does that she doesn’t cry.
The other main character is El Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez (actually, Robert Rodriguez in disguise, another example of how he has to do everything in his movies [just jerkin your chain bud, Freddy is the guy from DEAD PRESIDENTS]). He is some sort of notorious in-trouble-with-the-law local who we sort of find out (although the explanation is purposely missing from the movie) also has a Seagalian past of some kind. The way the character is presented is cool and Freddy does what he can but let’s face it, he’s not Kurt Russell or Roddy Piper, and he’s not even Ice Cube. He’s a 5’6″ baby-faced little fella who is a good actor but just because he does a flip off a wall in one part does not make him a badass presence. Sorry bud just tellin it like it is.
And if you’re making a John Carpenter action movie but you don’t have a Snake Plissken or a Jack Burton or a George Nada, that sort of means you’re making GHOSTS OF MARS, doesn’t it?
I think the problem with Rodriguez is that he’s gone completely digital, but his talents are analog. He’s a guy who grew up making movies on camcorders and editing them together by dubbing from one VCR to another. So he knows how to edit together shots to tell a story well. In my opinion, it’s when he gets into all these green screens and digital whatsits or even old fashioned special effects that he loses control and starts making a mess of those basics he’s normally so good at. I think he’s best when he’s got an actual guy standing in the actual outdoors, with real sun shining on him. He knows exactly where to put the camera and how to edit it later. If you look at all those gunfights in DESPERADO for example, he knows how to put an action scene together, make it thrilling and beautiful, and in the process he invests these ridiculous characters with more emotional depth than should be possible. But ever since SPY KIDS he’s been doing his homegrown cartoon special effects and at the same time the stories get sloppier and less effective and it becomes harder and harder to think of the characters as people.
Actually maybe the best place to trace it to is the pre-digital FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. The first half is what I love about Rodriguez and the second half is what mildly amuses me about him. He puts in some clever gags and it’s kind of fun but it just turns into a bunch of chaos and cartoony silliness and you lose the character and story that you get when he’s more stripped down.
To be fair, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is shot digitally and has tons of effects shots in it, but it LOOKS organic. I had no idea. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, PLANET TERROR is more like the second half of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. It’s a movie that has all kinds of cool stuff in it, which is a plus. They have Bruce in there, they have Tom Savini with a gorey death, they have Tarantino in a vanity role as “Rapist #1,” they have roles for Michael Biehn and even the original Mariachi Carlos Gallardo, they have a scene where a guy falls down and his mouth touches a severed testacle, and he deserves it. But what they don’t have, in my opinion, is heart. You have to really put some effort into it to convince yourself you care about Cherry and El Wray’s love at the end. This reminds me more of Rodriguez’s made for cable movie ROADRACERS than any of his theatrical releases. There’s a part where a little kid dies out of the blue but the context of the story is so un-serious that instead of getting upset you just wonder what that was all about. There’s nothing to make it work as a real horror movie and the jokes (although funny) aren’t enough to make it a real comedy. It’s not a real movie, it’s a nice homage to a real movie.
But Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF is a real movie. On the old double features the second one was supposed to be the B movie, the not as good one. Sure enough this one is smaller and cheaper, but it also happens to be better in every way. It takes some of the structure of a real good, serious slasher movie and it Tarantino-izes it. He builds to scares in a strong, traditional way but he spends most of the movie on dialogue and characters and good acting, the things nobody expects to see in a slasher movie.
Basically, this is a movie about girls hanging out talking, and then they run into a maniac who gets off on killing women in car crashes. Kind of a hard fetish to live with I’m sure, but I can’t really feel sorry for the guy. Kurt Russell is not exactly back in Snake Plissken mode, but man is he great as Stuntman Mike, the car crash pervert. But he’s not the star, he is actually a distant threat for most of the movie, he is the stalker.
The structure is perfect for a slasher story but the balance you expect is thrown off because most of the screen time is given to conversation and much less than usual is given to the actual horror. For the first half it doesn’t seem weird because you establish this car with an unseen driver following, then you slowly establish who Stuntman Mike is, you have him moving in, then suddenly he strikes and there are some deaths in one of the most amazing car crash sequences I can think of. At this point Tarantino brings in his recurring character Sheriff Earl McGraw (he was in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, KILL BILL VOLUME 1, and even PLANET TERROR) for one scene where he acts as the psychologist at the end of PSYCHO, the guy who explains what’s going on here in this sicko’s mind.
In that first half there is all this talk of the girls going to a lake house, which is of course a common staging ground for some slashing. But just like we never saw the movie THE LAKE HOUSE starring Sandra Bullock, we never do see this lake house the girls are going to. Instead we meet another group of girls who Stuntman Mike is stalking (there’s a shot of him photographing that’s straight out of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE). These girls are in town to film a movie, and two of them are stunt women, played by actual stunt women. [UPDATE: I was wrong, only Zoe Bell is an actual stunt woman, but I’m leaving my fuckup in to show how humble I am.] The most notable one (because she ends up doing some amazing stunts) is Zoe Bell, the New Zealander who was Uma Thurman’s stunt double for KILL BILL, and here she is playing herself. The end of the movie turns out to be about what happens when Stuntman Mike fucks with the wrong group of girls. I saw the movie a couple days ago and just today it occurred to me that DEATH PROOF not only refers to Stuntman Mike’s car, but to Zoe Bell, the world’s luckiest stunt woman.
Now, as a fan of the old slasher movies this structure is a little bit weird to me, and I’ll tell you why. There are two main types of slasher movies, the ones where the girl gets away and the ones where the girl goes back and gets revenge. But usually before the revenge the girl has to go through hell, especially in those movies like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. That one was obviously designed as a feminist story but because you have to watch the vilest shit imaginable to get to the girl power, nobody really believed it was sincere. Even in the good old fashioned rape-free movies you’re gonna see the killer rack up a hell of a body count before he gets an ax in the head, and the girl is gonna be terrorized all over town before she gives the killer what he’s got comin.
That is my one minor complaint about DEATH PROOF. There is one very impressive murder scene, and one very impressive attack scene, and then they immediately turn around and get their revenge. Gleefully. Not psychotic gleeful, but cute gleeful, bloody revenge as girl’s night out. And it’s all so sudden. The way it goes down is definitely fun. Really, I liked it. But I think if Tarantino had put them through some more terror first then the end would’ve been all that more earned, all that more satisfying.
But oh well. It’s clear what Tarantino has in mind. The movie referenced the most in DEATH PROOF is not a slasher movie at all, it’s VANISHING POINT, one of the artier of the g.h. works. True, it’s more of a crowdpleaser than TWO LANE BLACKTOP, but it’s not just a bunch of cars flipping and going off jumps, there’s some quiet brooding and shit in that movie. This is much more upbeat, but it’s the same kind of thing, trying to go a little arty but also have some great car stunts.
I have learned from dipping into the dark underworld of the talkbacks that DEATH PROOF seems to be the less popular one, most people saying it’s boring because it’s all talk and the dialogue is terrible, and occasionally these talkbackers describe the women in the movie as bitches or cunts. Just for a touch of class. Well, more power to you guys but man oh man can I not relate to that. I’m not gonna say this is Tarantino’s best dialogue, and of course there is a bit of a formula to it, you notice any movie reference he makes and it can get self conscious at times. But I like watching these characters talk to each other. I like when Stuntman Mike is going through all the stars he’s doubled for, naming off shows like THE VIRGINIAN and VEGA$, the kinds of references Tarantino likes to make, and suddenly he slows to a stop as he realizes that these girls don’t have a clue about any of these people or shows he’s talking about, and then he goes away and sulks, realizing he’s an old man.
Some people say Tarantino’s dialogue is realistic, which is bullshit. That’s not the point. The conversations are stylized and structured into stories and create an artificial rendition of real conversation. And they slyly drop details that set up what would happen later in a regular slasher movie – and then it doesn’t. So when you get to the second gang of women and you listen to them talk shit to each other you don’t know if this is going to go anywhere or not, but what they’re talking about does indeed set up what you need to know for the thrilling no CGI car stunt finale.
And I honestly wasn’t bored for a second, not just because I think this is indeed well written dialogue but because of some damn good performances. Tarantino does both his “good performance out of somebody you didn’t expect it from” trick and his “good performance out of somebody you never heard of before” one. Rosario Dawson is better than I’ve ever seen her. Sidney Poitier’s daughter Sydney is great. Most amazingly, Zoe Bell is perfect as an actress, then ends up doing these incredible stunts. You become very invested in this character Zoe and then you see her – the character and the real person – hanging on for dear life on the front of a fast moving car. For real. Not since the old Jackie Chan movies have I felt so concerned about bodily harm being done to an actor.
One complaint I’ve seen is that these two were made with a combined budget of $50 some million, which is alot more than it cost to make BLOODSUCKING FREAKS. Well, it seems to me you guys are missing the point. This is not supposed to be some Dogme exercise, it’s a tribute. Please point me to the guy who expected STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES to be made with the budget constraints of the serials that inspired them. These guys are like every generation of directors, they get all nostalgic for the movies they grew up on but they turn it into their own thing. John Carpenter is always trying to make a Howard Hawks movie, but nobody gets mad at him for having a bigger budget, using color film and not putting Kurt Russell in a cowboy hat. Because that would be stupid.
Not that I would be against seeing what they would do using low budgets again. But keep in mind that H.G. Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST had more than three times the budget of EL MARIACHI, not even including inflation. So it’s not like they have anything to prove. Plus, wouldn’t it almost be an insult to the g-house directors if they tried to follow some kind of budget and schedule constraints to make it authentic? Hello, we are making movies with the same limitations they had back then, but because we are of the 2000s and are big time Hollywood directors ours will be really good and you should pay $9.50 to see them.
Anyway, the one drawback to this being a double feature is that it might make me hesitate to see it again in a theater. Maybe I’ll still do it but it’s really DEATH PROOF I want to see again. Still, it’s a fun night at the movies and a good value for the cash-strapped individuals like myself who would’ve paid separately to see both anyway. The fake trailers and vintage intros are great too. I do wish they hadn’t hyped what the different trailers are because they’re all pretty funny but would be better if you didn’t see them coming. They got one by Eli Roth (the narrator sucks but otherwise it seems 100% authentic as a low budget horror movie) Rob Zombie (the weakest but amusing), Edgar Winter or whoever (the funniest one) but my favorite was actually the one at the beginning, Robert Rodriguez’s MACHETE. Basically, this is a low budget action movie built around the scarred face of Danny (MARKED FOR DEATH) Trejo. Like a blaxploitation movie they work in themes specific to his ethnic background – references to day laborers, immigration etc., and he’s an assassin with a coat full of machetes who gets set up and then seeks his revenge.
The good news is Rodriguez has wanted to make a real MACHETE for years and is apparently planning to shoot it as a DTV release, expanding from the scenes he already shot to make the trailer. Now that’s the movie I want to see from Rodriguez. Let’s hope he really goes through with it.
In conclusion, PLANET TERROR is a fun warmup, DEATH PROOF is a great movie. If you like stunts, cars and Kurt Russell– well, you already saw it, so you can back me up on this.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.