Driven to Distraction / Worlds Collide

Driven to Distraction

By Scott Foundas

There exists some debate about audience familiarity with the term "grindhouse," and even a certain confusion about the origins of the word itself—whether it refers to the movies that composed a gilded age of exploitation cinema or to the all-night urban theaters in which they were regularly shown. It matters little, though, for so richly evocative is Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse of an earlier generation's guilty cinematic pleasures that you can practically feel the stick of dried soda under your sneakers and smell the faint aroma of bum emanating from the row behind you.

With their three-hour double-header, Tarantino and Rodriguez are telling us something about what turned them on at the picture show back when the thrills were as cheap as the tickets—and before Hollywood started making steroidal versions of grindhouse movies with A-list stars and nine-figure budgets. Indeed, the greatest failing of Grindhouse is simply that there are no longer any proper grindhouses in which to screen it, though both directors have gone out of their way to guarantee viewers a decidedly THX-uncertified viewing experience. Built into the body of both films are print scratches, missing scenes, bad splices, and projection malfunctions—deliberate "mistakes" that serve as a melancholic epitaph not just for the grindhouses, but for the soon-to-be-extinct phenomenon of movies shot and projected on 35mm film.

The problem with movies made in such a conscious state of nostalgia is that they tend to anesthetize the elemental appeal of the very thing they're nostalgizing. But any such fears about Grindhouse are quickly obliterated by Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a 90-minute jolt of zombie mayhem that suggests the mutant offspring of George Romero's The Crazies and John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. The movie begins with a bang—or maybe it's a bing—as the dexterous go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) shows her love for a shiny metal pole in a down-market Texas nightclub. Cut to a roadside BBQ joint where Cherry is unexpectedly reunited with El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the mysterious loner-drifter with whom she shares an unspoken past. Planet Terror doesn't have much time for explanations, though, for by this point a flesh-eating (and reanimating) chemical weapon is already making its way through the night air, creating a zombie army in its wake.

Carried along by a current of crude energy and gory élan that rarely lets up, Planet Terror gets the audience worked up into such a frenzy that you start to wonder how Tarantino can possibly top it. But one of the surprises of Death Proof is that he doesn't even try. Rather, he mellows the mood with a thoroughly unpredictable road movie in which long, laconic passages of cheerleader-movie-style girl-bonding give way to sudden bouts of vehicular manslaughter and an orgiastic tribute to tough, kick-ass babes.

Conceived in two distinct, Psycho-like parts separated by what could be considered Tarantino's shower scene on wheels, the movie follows two groups of female friends as they successively cross paths with a scar-faced stranger known only as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a former movie stuntman who seems intent on turning his life into its own grindhouse movie. His skull-and-crossbones-decorated Dodge Charger literally knocks the ladies dead—until, that is, he meets his match in a daredevil New Zealand stuntwoman (real-life stunt player Zoe Bell) on furlough from a film shoot with her three plucky crewmates and a 1970 Dodge Challenger.

For all the film's automotive derring-do—and make no mistake that Tarantino has executed one of the most spectacular, old-school car chases ever set to film—Death Proof's most violent collision is the one that occurs between the real and the reel, an existential terrain that Tarantino prowls every bit as boldly as David Lynch did in last year's Inland Empire. It may be the most revealing thing Tarantino's ever done—a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses of yore, as a glittering hunk of trash.

Worlds Collide

By Nathan Lee

I've got a theory about Grindhouse, and it goes like this. At some point during the brainstorming/beer-bonging process by which Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino developed their multimillion-dollar ersatz-exploitation double feature, the boys finished off the super nachos, sparked up a spliff, and said, "Dude, let's just motherfucking bring it." From whence proceeded a checklist of must-haves: zombie hordes and one-legged go-go dancers, hotrods and hot pants, evil doctors and exploding pustules, trash-talking identical-twin babysitters, castration, decapitation, dismemberment, diminutive Mexican badasses, customized motorcycles, Kurt Russell, Osama Bin Laden and Fu Manchu, tasty sausage, jive-ass stuntwomen, outrageous car wrecks, buckets of blood, geysers of gore, mountains of weaponry, explosions bigger than God (Tarantino: "How big?" Rodriguez: "Retarded big")—and, of course, titties, lots and lots of titties.

From first rude frame to lascivious last, Grindhouse guns to be the last word in fanboy fetishism. Not only does it monkey around with degenerate genres (splatter films, bad-girl flicks, John Carpenter cheapies, car-chase extravaganzas); it apes the condition of crummy old prints. Convulsed in phony glitches—scratches, scuffs, projector hiccups, soured film stock, missing reels—it's a digitally enhanced homage to analogue grime that unspools like a Guy Maddin spectacular super-charged to the Weinstein account. There may not be any house left to grind in New York, skuzzy little theaters having gone the way of subway tokens, smoking in bars, and, you know, fun. But as nostalgia trips go, at least this one goes all the way.

The house that Rodriguez and Tarantino built is constructed on two levels. In Planet Terror, a deliciously repellent zombie apocalypse (of love), Rodriguez showers the screen with icky globs of glorious nonsense. The convenient thing about riffing on grindhouse is that it gives you a license to thrill at will: Casual plotting, randomly generated protagonists, spectacle for its own sake, and questionable ethics come with the territory. That plays well to Rodriguez's strengths (sight gags, Grand Guignol) and weaknesses (patience, coherence) as he mounts a hilariously haphazard scenario pitting a clutch of the uninfected (Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Michael Biehn) against the peckish undead (makeup effects by Greg Nicotero).

Where Rodriguez does grindhouse more or less straight up, Tarantino takes greater license with Death Proof—which is to say the tradition he's elaborating on is the Tarantino Movie. Only tangentially related to the vehicular mayhem genre (Vanishing Point is name-checked repeatedly), this sneaky contraption is booby trapped with twisty talk, structural shocks, berserkoid set pieces, and unabashed foot fetishism. Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a genial psychopath with a thing for running down babes in his customized Dodge Charger. His targets include Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Zoë (Uma's Kill Bill stunt double, Zoë Bell), Abernathy (radiant Rosario Dawson), and the inevitable Tough Black Chick (Tracie Thoms as Kim), whose incurable case of Tarantino-style Tourette's—bitch this, mothafucka that, nonstop nigga-pleez—strikes what may be the only truly gratuitous note in this ostensible exploitation epic.

Tarantino is a big supporter of the neo-exploitation crowd (two of whose luminaries, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, contribute ingenious trailers for imaginary films alongside Edgar Wright and Rodriguez), but his own sensibility is sweeter. Death Proof expends most of its energy on boozy barroom camaraderie and baroque restaurant chitchat. Even the villain is rather a dear, while Tarantino clearly relishes his rehabilitation of Russell, on whom he lavishes as much affection as his girls gone wild. And wild they go, pedal to the metal, brandishing iron poles, turning the tables on Stuntman Mike in a giddy automotive assault that climaxes with the finest syncopation since Before Sunset.

Like I said, from first frame to last—and by the time you exit this blockbuster-as-block party behemoth, you'll have taken in a quarter-million of them. This monumentally pointless movie is best summarized by a line from Planet Terror: "At some point in your life, you find a use for every useless talent you have." Rodriguez, Tarantino & Co. aim for nothing more noble than to freak the funk, and it's about goddamn time.