To understand the wild new movie from co-directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez first you have to understand the premise. They have made a good old-fashioned exploitation movie double bill, complete with scratchy film and missing reels. They’ve recreated the grind house experience for an audience that may be too young to remember the days before multi-plexes dotted the landscape and people went to local theatres where movies were two for the price of one.
What is a grind house you ask? You may have been in a grindhouse theatre and not even known it.
If the ushers in the theatre carried a flashlight in one hand and a two by four (known as the “peacekeeper”) in the other, chances are, you were in a grind house.
If they played Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in July, that’s a grind house.
If there were gaps in the story, or if the reels were out of order, you were in a grind house.
Most of those seedy theatres are gone now, but you can relive the experience in the new film Grindhouse, a double feature of two new films aged to look like classic exploitation fare, complete with coming attraction trailers. The only thing missing is the usher with the two by four.
The first film, Planet Terror is Robert Rodriguez’s riff on the zombie genre. Set in a small, dark Texas town on the edge of nowhere the story begins when a toxic bio-chemical weapon that turns God-fearing citizens into flesh-starved zombies is unleashed on the public. The fate of the world rests in the hands of band of vigilantes led by a plucky Go-Go dancer named Cherry (Rose McGowan) and her mysterious companion, and former boyfriend, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez).
Director Rodriguez kicks out the jams, layering one over-the-top exploitation cliché over another. Where else would you see a one legged Go-Go dancer with a machine gun prosthetic who uses stripper moves to avoid getting shot? McGown plays Cherry as the ultimate b-movie babe—beautiful, dangerous and just slightly silly (although you wouldn’t tell her that, she’d likely blow you into a million pieces). With her is Wray, the enigmatic hero, whose back-story is cleverly omitted because of a missing reel. Together they battle creatures that resemble past their expiration date versions of The Toxic Avenger. It’s gooey, ghastly and gross and darkly funny.
Between the first and second features are trailers for make-believe movies. Splat Pack directors Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright contribute funny and outrageous promos for Werewolf Women of the SS and Don’t! respectively. Eli Roth contributes a third twisted trailer that is exactly what you would expect from the warped mind that gave us movies like Hostel and Cabin Fever.
Filling out the bottom of the bill is Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the killer car movies of the 1970s, Death Proof. Kurt Russell dusts off his badass image, retired after making a string of movies like Escape from LA, to play Stuntman Mike, a psychopath with a 1972 Chevy Nova. The stuntman’s MO is simple; he befriends and stalks women before using his car to commit vehicular murder. When he targets a couple of female stunt drivers, however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Tarantino’s film is the more textured of the two. Whereas Rodriguez’s film takes off like a rocket, Death Proof takes its time. Like its Austin locale, the movie is laid back and just a little quirky. We meet radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her friends who are chillin’ out, getting high and making girl talk. When Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) agrees to give Stuntman Mike a lap-dance, she inadvertently seals the fate of her and her friends.
From there Mike turns his attention to four gal pals who are working on a nearby movie set. They literally give him a run for his money in one of the most exciting car chases in recent memory. The movie’s languid pace evaporates like water in the hot Texas sun as Tarantino skillfully turns Death Proof into an action packed revenge drama.
Despite some star power—Sin City’s Rosario Dawson is the above-the-title name—it’s a relative new comer who steals the movie. Stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies, plays herself and it is her presence that lends the movie much of its oomph. The realism of her dangerous looking stunts—Tarantino filmed all her dialogue scenes first just in case she was hurt (or worse) during the elaborate car chase scene—kicks the movie up a notch and drew cheers from the audience I saw the movie with.
Planet Terror and Death Proof are both clearly labors of love for the directors. From the insane plots to the faded film stock to the missing reels, they have nailed the look and feel of 70s exploitation flicks. Both directors are smart enough not to take to the mickey out of the movies. The outrageous material is played straight, with the actors and directors taking the story seriously. The result is a certain earnestness in the performances that transcends campiness.
Grindhouse succeeds because it creates an entire atmosphere, whisking the viewer away to a different time and place where ushers carried two-by-fours.