The day after I saw THANKSGIVING I decided to sit down and watch the whole GRINDHOUSE double feature for the first time in many years. I saw it twice during its short theatrical run in 2007, saw the longer separate version of DEATH PROOF on DVD (can’t remember if I ever did the same for PLANET TERROR), at some point I bought a Canadian import blu-ray just to have the full double feature when it wasn’t available here yet. Turns out it was still unopened.
DEATH PROOF definitely stands up as a separate movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed having that full experience again. I know online movie people talk too much about runtimes, sort of a dumb topic usually, but I want to point out that this full double feature is only 15 minutes longer than THE BATMAN, 10 minutes longer than OPPENHEIMER, and 15 minutes shorter than KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON. But it offers two very different movies, plus short subjects in the form of fake trailers and bumpers, that play off each other kind of like an anthology. For those times when you’re in more of a splattering blood and smashing cars mood than a creation of the atom bomb one it’s a joyful and enriching way to spend an afternoon or evening.
The experience starts off strong with the MACHETE trailer. This ode to the awesomeness of Danny Trejo is still a masterpiece, as the mixed bag feature version and its disappointing sequel fade in my memory. The one I’d forgotten most was Rob Zombie’s WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S., and its appearance by Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu is even more interesting now. At the time it seemed amazing that this big time star, whose most recent movie was GHOST RIDER, would be willing to do that. Now it seems prescient because it was about four years later that he seemed to make himself available to any role from quickie DTV thrillers to LEFT BEHIND reboots.
The main reason for me to re-watch GRINDHOUSE was to return to Robert Rodriguez’s PLANET TERROR. I haven’t changed too much from my feeling in my first review that “It’s not a real movie, it’s a nice homage to a real movie,” but I definitely enjoyed it more this time than it sounds like I did back then. In retrospect I don’t even think Rodriguez went overboard with the fake scratches and grime. It’s a really appealing look, that grainy night sky, especially after years of brightly lit and blandly over-polished digital cinematography. It looks like a hybrid of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD boiled together in a big pot with a couple weird nightmares from my childhood. Great work by cinematographer Robert Rodriguez. Hats off also to score composer Robert Rodriguez for not just getting Carpenter-esque with the synths, but also the guitar riffs. You don’t hear that as much.
The opening sets up the tone well, with a clandestine meeting on a military base. Dr. John “Abby” Abbington (Naveen Andrews, THE BRAVE ONE) is a villainous mad scientist who expresses disappointment in the failure of underlings by cutting off their balls, which I take to be a one-upping of Durant’s collection of fingers in DARKMAN. Abby’s henchmen are used to doing this for him and have special tools for it. He carries the balls around in a big jar, which he drops and breaks during a scuffle and then he falls down and his mouth touches one of the balls. Even better, before he runs off he scrambles to grab some of the balls and shove them in his pockets. So this is a pretty good villain.
He’s there to meet Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis in the year of LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD), about the bioweapon DC2, which Muldoon was sprayed with while killing bin Laden (four years early), so now he has to keep breathing it or he’ll turn into a zombie, which they call “sickos.” I love the shot of him threatening Abby while the skin on his face (digitally) bubbles from the infection. The negotiations go poorly, the gas canisters are hit by bullets, kicking off a sicko outbreak in this small town.
One of the first things to immediately make me think “Okay, this is gonna be fun” is that pretty much every time a bullet hits a body in this scene it causes an an enormous splash of blood. It doesn’t look digital to me but it’s so over the top how could it be squibs? Do they have a huge hose attached that gets digitally erased? I don’t know, but this approach continues throughout the movie and it never fails to make me smile. Honestly one of the great achievements in cinematic bloodletting.
For once it’s kind of cool that Bruce’s part is minimal, because he makes sense as the slumming special guest star (the Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu, if you will) and his part is just to come in and fire off a few volleys of his action star presence. The main character is Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan, MONKEYBONE), who quits her job as a go-go dancer and stops at the barbecue joint owned by J.T. (Jeff Fahey, PSYCHO III, DARKMAN III) where she encounters her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez, the guy who got his nose ring pulled out in PAYBACK). Though they have bad blood she asks him for a ride, they get in an accident, one of her legs is ripped off and then zombies take it. (The sheriff will later refer to it as “a missing leg that is now missing.”)
In the tradition of such films as HALLOWEEN II and Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II, there’s a chunk of horror at the hospital. Wray brings Cherry there as people are showing up with nasty infections. I like Joe (Nicky Katt, AMERICAN YAKUZA), the patient who comes in way too casual about a zombie bite that looks about ten times grosser than you’d expect. The mix of makeup and digital FX are in the same no-such-thing-as-too-much spirit as the jar of balls and the bullet hits – disgustingly melting faces, arms, dicks. It’s a normal zombie movie injected with some sort of Basil Woolverton serum.
Joe’s doctor is Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin in the same year he really re-blew up with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, a gig he got with the help of Rodriguez and Tarantino filming an unsolicited audition video), with his anesthesiologist/wife Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton, WARRIORS OF VIRTUE), who we happen to know is planning to leave him tonight. He proves her decision is justified when he finds out by spying on her texts and injects her with her own syringes. She escapes the abusive husband as well as the zombies and, in sort of a one-upping of Beatrix Kiddo’s escape from the hospital post-coma, manages to open and drive a car with two floppy, sleeping arms. The part where she slides one into the door handle then loses her balance is one of those cinematic moments that goes all the way into the red on the oh, fuck! meter.
The other most important character introduced in the hospital is Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn, DRAGON SQUAD). Rodriguez knows to treat him as an icon, giving him a dramatic entrance through swinging doors. You get a moment to go, “Oh shit, it’s Michael Biehn!” and then “Oh, and Tom Savini!”
And then there’s a cut to EL MARIACHI himself, Carlos Gallardo, giving us an extra second to clock him if we’re so inclined. Sheriff Hague knows Wray and says he “stuck his neck out” for him, but doesn’t trust him. So they have a sort of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 partnership. They all need to flee the zombies at the hospital, so Wray jams a table leg into Cherry’s stump. The FX for that are really good and so is McGowan’s physical performance. Of course I remembered that she upgrades to a machine gun leg and uses her go-go moves in battle, but I forgot about her touches of clumsiness as she gets used to it – wobbling a little and almost slipping after some of the cool trailer moments. Good stuff.
Rodriguez prankishly skips over a bunch of the narrative shoe leather by having a “missing reel” where we miss the climax of a sex scene and cut to when the barbecue joint is on fire, the sheriff is on the floor dying and now respects Wray because he confessed to his secret past as a legendary special ops super duper badass known as El Wray.
It’s an example of the movie not taking its plot seriously, but it’s also a great joke, and it prevents the movie from getting too bogged down in things we really didn’t need much detail about.
Cherry’s gun-leg heroics are the most memorable part of the last act. Another highlight is Savini getting torn apart in a clear tribute to (but not straight up mimicry of) Rhodes’ death in DAY OF THE DEAD (one of Savini’s masterpieces).
I don’t think it’s debilitating, but the weakness of the finale and the movie overall is that everybody’s talking about El Wray as this mythical figure, but on screen he’s kinda bland. Sorry Freddy Rodriguez, it’s nothing personal. But they talk about him as this legend, it’s alot to live up to, and he only does in the little part where he does a flip up a wall and kills some guys. (Robert) Rodriguez is so good at milking the larger-than-life charisma and screen presence of his favorite guys like Trejo or Antonio Banderas, so it’s not out of the question that El Wray could’ve been the Troublemaker Studios equivalent to Snake Plissken. But I’m afraid (Freddy) Rodriguez doesn’t have that kind of juice.
On the other hand, the female lead ridiculously outshining and outlasting the male one is thematically appropriate for this double feature. And I like the epilogue where Cherry is leading the other survivors, living as a tribe of nomads on sunny beaches in Mexico. She seems as cool as they swore El Wray was. Maybe it’s for the best.
Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF is a completely different interpretation of the “Grindhouse Aesthetic,” and feels almost nothing like PLANET TERROR. It’s bright instead of dark, no digital effects beyond wire removals, nothing sci-fi or monstery about it. I do think it’s technically a horror movie, and it definitely borrows some time honored slasher tropes, but it’s more interested in paying tribute to a very different exploitation staple: sunny car movies with women in cut offs and halter tops. It also glorifies the talents and wild lives of stunt people, something he’d continue in his later movie about late ‘60s Hollywood. He has an ending more broad and goofy than any of his other movies, but another banging soundtrack of deep cuts, and his usual focus on long, indulgent dialogue scenes written in his distinct voice. The talkiness, honestly, is in keeping with drive-in tradition, except that he and his cast throw more passion into it than most.
This is also Tarantino’s love letter to his time in Austin. He gets a shot of an Alamo Drafthouse, then makes it about friends hanging out drinking at Güero’s Taco Bar on a rainy night. It feels like such a loose hangout movie, but it has an elegant structure to it. First half: we see Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell coming off a run of SKY HIGH, DREAMER and POSEIDON) spying on some women. We meet and hang out with the women as they make plans for a weekend cabin getaway. We see Mike hovering like a shark, though he passes for a quirky, even charming old weirdo at the bar. Then he strikes with his car, killing all of them in one crash (with apparent final girl Butterfly [Vanessa Ferlito, SHADOWBOXER] instead turning out to be the Marion Crane).
Ending-of-PSYCHO style interlude: Earl McGraw (Michael Parks, DEATH WISH V) and son (James Parks, reprising his character from FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY) at the hospital, discussing Earl’s belief that Mike is a pervert who gets off on fatal car crashes, basically a slasher who uses a car instead of a knife. But there’s no official crime, so he can’t do anything about it other than “make god damn sure he don’t do it in Texas.”
So the second half starts over again in Tennessee, with Stuntman Mike stalking a new set of women. He may or may not know they’re in the same industry as him, with some time off from a shoot. They don’t know him.
It’s deceptive – subtly complex for a hangout movie. For example, there’s the scene where Zoë Bell (Zoë Bell, WHIP IT), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, HE GOT GAME), Kim (Tracie Thoms, LOOPER) and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, MAKE IT HAPPEN) have a conversation over breakfast, a 7-minute continuous shot with the camera floating around the table. Only after a couple viewings did I look away from their faces to see Mike in the background at the bar, his back to them, reading a newspaper, then leaving. Only on this viewing did I put it together that he must hear them talk about the classified ad for the Charger, find it in his paper, and head that way to keep spying on them.
What is very new for Tarantino and likely to never be repeated in his filmography is that he builds to a whole bunch of very cool, all-natural car stunts, with the wonderful magic trick that he put KILL BILL stuntwoman and previous non-actress Bell in a lead role as herself, charmed us by letting us hang out with her and her friends for a while, then made it unmistakable that it’s really her hanging from the hood during the chase. (By the way, it’s kinda cool that these characters seek out the white 1970 Dodge Charger because of their love of VANISHING POINT, and then it gets bashed up by Stuntman Mike’s car, which has become iconic in its own right, though mostly for its hood logo.)
(Also by the way, I don’t know if I ever realized that Daryl Hannah’s double from KILL BILL, Monica Staggs, is in the Austin section as their friend Lanna Frank. We don’t have any context of who she is, but everyone knows her, calls her by her full name, is waiting for her to show up like she’s the coolest one of the group, maybe even compared to the locally famous DJ whose face hovers above them on a billboard.)
Watching this as a double feature again I really appreciated that the two movies, you could say, pair well together. They balance each other out, leaning in totally different directions. The dark, digitally enhanced, totally ridiculous one, then the sunny, spare, practical, more serious (but still fun) one. And seeing them together again I really appreciated the cross-pollinating between the two, and the world-building for this alternate reality where there’s a Rodriguez International Pictures and an old Dimension Films logo. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN/KILL BILL character Earl McGraw is in both movies, as is the new character of his daughter Dakota. Tarantino’s Red Apple cigarettes appear in PLANET TERROR, where there’s also a character who mentions Jungle Julia’s radio show, before we meet her as a main character in DEATH PROOF (played by Sydney Poitier, TRUE CRIME). Between the two movies there’s an ad for a restaurant called Acuña Boys, which we see a cup for in DEATH PROOF (apparently it was also in JACKIE BROWN). Also, McGowan, Tarantino, and Rodriguez’ then-nieces “the Crazy Babysitter Twins” appear in both movies as different characters, while Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn appear in both PLANET TERROR and the MACHETE trailer.
For people currently fixated on shaming Tarantino for his foot fetish, please note that I made a joke about it in my DEATH PROOF DVD review sixteen years ago. In case you’re wondering how fucking old the topic is. Those people will be too distracted by the camera’s worship of Poitier’s feet (director of photography: Quentin Tarantino) to notice how much he centers butts in this one. Definite respect shown, and I’m not one to complain. But I have to admit that some of these aspects play differently after #MeToo and the downfall of Harvey Weinstein: the ogling of female bodies in both halves of the double bill (especially McGowan’s opening go-go dance that ends in tears), the DEATH PROOF characters’ gossip about directors sleeping with crew members, the various rapey bad guys (including Tarantino’s “Rapist #1” and Eli Roth’s “Dov,” one of two guys scheming to get their dates drunker than they want to). Though in this cut both films use a “missing reel” gimmick to cut out the sexiest part, they definitely turn the ‘horny’ and ‘sleazy’ dials up higher than most of their work, in deference to the traditions of exploitation cinema. I do generally think it’s all in good fun, but now I keep remembering Harvey Weinstein’s name on the credits, and how much these directors thrived with his support, and that brings up questions about how much they might’ve known and what they tried to do about it. I’m not making a judgment about that, I’m just saying if you think about it during the movie it it can change the mood.
Rodriguez later claimed he’d specifically cast McGowan as an act of defiance against Weinstein for raping her and trying to sabotage her career. She told Rodriguez she would’ve loved to be in SIN CITY but didn’t audition because Weinstein had blacklisted her since she sued him and got a settlement. So according to Rodriguez he decided okay, I’ll make you the main character in PLANET TERROR, he won’t be able to tell me no, he’ll be forced to pay you and help revive your career. That all seems plausible to me, but Rodriguez also claims Weinstein “buried” GRINDHOUSE in retaliation, which I don’t understand. It was not one of those movies that comes out and you never heard about it. There was very aggressive marketing and excitement for people like me, it just didn’t translate to as many ticket sales as they needed outside of those circles. It happens.
I generally really like Rodriguez and don’t think of him as full of shit, but this part of his open letter is hard to swallow: “We all suffered greatly on the film, and the journey ended up costing us all more than we ever bargained for. For me personally, it cost me my marriage of 16 years, my family, a large dose of sanity, and for years I have grappled with the sobering idea that maybe I made a grave error in standing up at all, when no one was even asking me to. “
Who does he think he is? El Wray? I don’t know, man. But this whole chapter adds a piece of information, that Rodriguez was aware of Weinstein being a rapist and (allegedly) tried to punish him for it. For whatever it’s worth, Rodriguez’s only subsequent movies released by the Weinstein Company (SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD and SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR) were sequels, so they probly had to be contractually. But Tarantino did three more movies with the Weinsteins, not splitting with them until the allegations became public. It’s weird that he must’ve known one of the guys funding his movies was the type of dude his heroines were poetically stomping to death.
For me that sobering thought doesn’t erase that DEATH PROOF is, on top of everything else, a cathartic fantasy about women defeating male aggression. Mike thinks he’s so cool with his badass car, his pompadour, his rolled up t-shirt sleeves, his silver jacket, his stalking and preying on women for fun. But as soon as he crosses Zoë Bell and friends he’s deflated like a balloon. After Kim shoots him in the shoulder there’s a comical scene of him alone in his car blubbering.
Then they come after him and right away it’s “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything! I was just playing around!” I like how Zoë hops into the window holding a pipe like it’s a lance – a white knight going to slay the dragon. And they take turns using his head as a punching bag before Abernathy puts a boot heel through his skull. The end. Cut to “Chick Habit” by April March (translated from Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse tomber lesfilles”):
“You’re gonna need a heap of glue / When they all catch up with you / And they cut you up in two.”
I wonder if they got in trouble for that? Would DEATH PROOF 2 have to be a women-in-prison movie? I’m gonna say no. They lived happily ever after. It’s a cartoon, a fantasy, a dream. Unfortunately real life hasn’t been as simple. Stomping heads in is not a workable solution, and it took another decade for Weinstein to suffer any consequences for his long career of assaults. There are plenty of other Harvey Weinsteins out there doing their thing until they get called out, and they don’t even have to apologize if they want to switch to a right wing/anti-“cancel-culture” audience (Louis C.K., Russell Brand, etc.) DEATH PROOF is not a reality, but to be fair none of us went in expecting the retro-exploitation double feature to change the world.
It did change movies a little, though, didn’t it? Or at least DVD releases. They certainly started using the word “grindhouse” a whole lot more freely, and adding distress to every cover design. It’s hard to know, but I really think PLANET TERROR’s halfway-between-a-parody-and-a-real-movie tone, with a premise seemingly adapted from vintage poster art, is a likely influence on movies like MANBORG, WEREWOLF COP, KUNG FURY, and TURBO KID. Arguably even BLACK DYNAMITE. Some of those tongue-in-cheek throwback type movies seem like possible offshoots or affiliates of Cherry Darling’s tribe.
Of course there’s also the MACHETE movie and MACHETE KILLS, and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (the feature version of a fake trailer made as a promotional contest for GRINDHOUSE, then added to the feature in Canada). And following in their footsteps, CLOWN and WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY are fake trailers later made into real movies. But maybe those are more influenced by HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES.
So GRINDHOUSE was a cultural moment even as it was failing at the box office. I was more right than I knew when I wrote in my Ain’t It Cool News review of the DEATH PROOF DVD release that “It’s a good time at the movies AND it lost money for some assholes.” So maybe that was for the better. But it could’ve been really cool if it did well enough to become a regular thing like the V/H/S movies or something like that – every 2 or 3 years there’s another double feature, maybe two new directors, maybe more Tarantino or Rodriguez, or maybe they just do trailers. And maybe sometimes the trailers become features in subsequent installments. Before it was seen as a financial failure Eli Roth was talking about him and Edgar Wright doing a THANKSGIVING/DON’T double feature as GRINDHOUSE 2, while Tarantino said he wanted to make an old school kung fu movie in Mandarin but in some places it would be shortened and dubbed.
Actually that sounds amazing! I’d be excited for both versions! That doesn’t have to count as movie #10. Do it under a pseudonym.
Anyway, I still like GRINDHOUSE. Good movie(s).