Rose McGowan shooting zombie-like infected hordes with a prosthetic leg. A melting Bruce Willis. Lost‘s Naveen Andrews stamping on a detached testicle. Exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s was all about sleaze and spectacle, and Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s extended homage to the genre, is a veritable encyclopaedia of gore, titillation and knowing references.
An attempt to replicate a full evening’s entertainment in a greasy, peeling cinema on Hollywood Boulevard, Grindhouse is a portmanteau film in the style of 1990’s Two Evil Eyes, in which directors Rodriguez and Tarantino take turns in bringing the unmistakeable texture and atmosphere of 70s B-movies to a 21st century audience.
The resulting picture, weighing in at a hefty three hours or more, was deemed such a flop on its release in 2007 that it was cruelly hacked in two outside the US, each feature released separately, minus almost all the gloriously kitsch mock trailers that originally accompanied them.
This Blu-ray release of Grindhouse is the first opportunity for non-Americans to see the double feature as its directors intended, a lengthy atrocity exhibition of blood, strippers and guilty pleasures.
Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is up first, a gleefully messy action horror mash-up that recalls Umberto Lenzi’s trashy epic Nightmare City, in which a planeload of fast moving, radiation-infected maniacs devour half of Italy.
Like Lenzi’s film, Planet Terror sees a strange virus mutate an entire community (this time in rural Texas) into slavering, oozing lunatics, and a go-go dancer (Rose McGowan), her ex-boyfriend (Six Feet Under‘s Freddy Rodriguez, who is remarkably convincing as an action hero), and a group of other survivors shoot and stab their way to freedom.
The plot is wilfully, brilliantly insane, taking in a mad, thermometer-chewing doctor (Josh Brolin), Osama Bin Laden, Fergie out of the Black Eyed Peas, gore effects veteran Tom Savini getting torn to pieces in an homage to his own infamous “Choke on ‘em!” sequence he devised for Day Of The Dead, Michael Biehn trading recipes with Jeff Fahey, and Marley Shelton playing one of the best unhinged screen mothers since Samantha Eggar in The Brood.
Striving for authenticity, Rodriguez goes to all kinds of lengths to disguise his movie’s moderately high budget. A patina of scratches obscures the picture, continuity and production errors are intentionally left in, and an entire reel is apparently missing.
As an approximation of the madness frequently found in the trashy movies that infested 80s video shops and cheap cinemas, it’s marvellous fun, though perhaps a little too slavish in its dedication to replicating its genre’s storytelling ineptitude. It’s a shame that Rodriguez couldn’t find some way of playing with the conventions of B-movie horror rather than merely conforming to them. While undoubtedly good fun, Planet Terror could have been even better had it confounded audience expectations.
After Planet Terror‘s abrupt conclusion, we’re treated to a series of perfectly realised mock trailers, each shot by guest directors Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright. (Rodriguez was responsible for the Machete promo, which appears before the start of Planet Terror.)
Of these, the most engaging is arguably Wright’s ‘Don’t’, a spot-on pastiche of Hammer-era British horror, or Jorge Grau’s UK-set The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue. In it, Jason Isaacs, Emily Booth, Peter Serafinowicz and, bizarrely, Katie Melua, are subjected to a nonsensical series of terrors in a haunted mansion.
Quentin Tarantino’s feature, Death Proof, follows. Here, two groups of women are terrorised by Kurt Russell’s deranged Stuntman Mike in his killer car, one messily despatched, the second proving to be more than a match for their attacker’s maniacal driving techniques.
Where Rodriguez’s movie revelled in its horror trappings, Death Proof is instead a pastiche of director Russ Meyer’s brand of exploitation filmmaking, as well as such car-obsessed movies as Vanishing Point (which is heavily referenced), or Duel.
Oddly, Death Proof soon veers from the scratchy aesthetic so closely adhered to by Rodriguez. Tarantino’s feature becomes notably less z-grade as it progresses, and as soon as the half hour stage, we’re in regular Tarantino territory, right down to the lingering, faintly disturbing shots of women’s feet and interminable, rambling dialogue.
There’s no doubt that, when he’s on form, Tarantino has a keen ear for the catchy rhythms of speech, and that his best exchanges crackle with funky charisma. Death Proof, however, catches Tarantino at a self-indulgent low ebb. His characters rattle on endlessly about sex, music and movies, in scenes that stop the narrative dead in its tracks.
The polarised reviews for Death Proof on its initial release are a sign of just how divisive this portion of Grindhouse can be. For some, its reference-laden monologues will prove endlessly entertaining, but for this writer, the scenes of dialogue are a distraction from the vehicular action its premise suggests, its characters little more than mouthpieces for Tarantino’s geek obsessions.
And when the action does finally kick in (and the stunts here are admittedly fantastic, with stunt actress Zoe Bell clinging to the bonnet of a Dodge Challenger for dear life as Russell attacks in his own killer car), the sense of fun that pervaded every moment of Planet Terror is only fitfully present. The eventual vehicular carnage makes up for the languid pace of the scenes that come before it, but only just.
By placing Death Proof as the second feature, essentially the main event to Rodriguez’s supporting act, Tarantino has, I’d argue, done the collective feature a disservice, for Planet Terror is by far the more disciplined, entertaining film of the two.
Taken as a whole, Grindhouse is nevertheless what its makers intended, an indulgent exploration of B-movie cinema, filled with references and cameos that are sure to evoke shouts of recognition from movie geeks everywhere. Its trailers, in particular, are little nuggets of delight, referencing everything from Nazi video nasties to cheap revenge movies.
Grindhouse‘s second disc contains a colossal vat of extras, including numerous ten-minute documentaries on the making of both features and their make-up effects, and extended cuts of the mock trailers for ‘Werewolf Women Of The SS’ and ‘Don’t’.
As its box-office failure back in 2007 proved, Grindhouse isn’t a film that a mass audience is likely to appreciate. But for devotees of the kind of trash cinema that Rodriguez and Tarantino adore, they’re sure to love every minute of this one-off oddity, particularly seen in its entirety as originally intended, its every scratch and defect now shimmering in high definition.
Some are sure to prefer Tarantino’s section over Rodriguez, while others, like me, will find more to enjoy in Planet Terror. Taken as a whole, complete with goofy trailers and ads for non-existent eating establishments, it recreates the atmosphere of a long-gone variety of cinema with fastidious care.