Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s collaborative cinematic crack, the brilliant and brash Grindhouse, was a failure in perception, not in execution. Opening up a blood and body part drenched motion picture the weekend of Easter may have seemed like the biggest bonehead move since Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake bowed at the very end of Summer (?), but what the three hour return to exploitation’s gruesome Golden Era proved was that, as revivalists, these moviemaking mavericks really understood their subject. For Tarantino, it was West Coast sex slaughter – slutty gals doing erotic things before meeting their anarchic action film fate. Rodriguez, on the other hand, delved right into the drive-in motif of macabre – whisper thin premise, smoking hot stars, unholy helpings of human suet. Together, they offered an overview of the taboo-busting film format, the moment movies woke up from their Hays Code induced coma and found their sex and violence voice.
Of the two, Planet Terror stands as the most faithfully inappropriate. Unlike his partner in retro crime, Rodriguez purposefully avoids any semblance of the arthouse to literally throw balls to the wall. In a MPAA mandated mentality that believes all cruelty creates socially inappropriate behavior, it’s Ritalin’s regressive antidote. Bringing the best bits of splatter directly into the new CGI heavy horror film while remembering to accent the physical, it’s a movie made up of iconic insanity and moments of proto-porn wackiness. Though it deals with such fright film standards as a corrupt military, a science experiment gone sour, and hundreds of flesh feasting zombies, there is more to this movie than mere bloody cinematic showdowns. What Rodriguez has accomplished is something very rare – a crowd pleasing celebration of all that Hollywood hates, filtered through a true geek’s love of glop.
When we first meet our heroine Cherry Darling (an absolutely brilliant Rose McGowen), she’s leaving her life as a go-go dancer and pursuing a dream as a stand up comic. Stopping off at local BBQ pit The Bone Shack on her way out, she runs into ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddie Rodriguez, grade-A badass). In the meantime, there’s trouble over at the military base. A noxious cloud of green gas has been unleashed, turning the local population into brain-hungry members of the undead. As law enforcement, including a serious sheriff (Michael Biehn) and his lunkheaded deputies (Tom Savini, Carlos Gallardo) battle the fiends, the doctors on call at the hospital (Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton) are seeing an increase in infected individuals. They have their own personal problems making matters worse. Eventually, it’s survivors vs. soldiers to determine who will live, and who will become part of this unending nightmare.
In his sensational audio commentary, the director points out the one thing he hated loosing in the original edit – the transitions. Trying to replicate the experimental extremism of exploitation’s heyday, he purposefully made each scene meld into the next. Sequences ending with a walk through a doorway would match new segments starting with same. Faucets turned on in one setting would lead to water covering someone’s foot in the next. These are wonderfully arty touches, moments of mise-en-scene that make you smile by their very obviousness. There are also little character tags, snippets of dialogue and interpersonal interaction that held to broaden our understanding of the relationships at work. We get more of Michael Park’s cancer ridden wife in the DVD version, explanations of why the marriage between Brolin and Shelton is falling apart. Unlike Death Proof, which Tarantino reconfigured into a weird internalized take on every ‘70s movie he’d ever seen, Rodriguez stayed firmly ensconced in the passion pit – and its shows.
Indeed, if Grindhouse was divided – yin and yang style – into two halfs, Planet Terror would be the portion that eats. It’s the movie directed at the audience, not the critic, and contains more applause/shout/scream worthy moments than the entire Hollywood horror output of 2006. One of the DVD’s biggest surprises is a second auditory track which offers up actual reactions recorded during a packed house showing of the film. The gasps, shouts, and shrieks are priceless, like the Beatlemania of b-moviedom. It illustrates how effectively Rodriguez was at tapping into the splatter fanatic zeitgeist. While it’s clear that the biggest cheers and jeers come at the proper scary movie moments, it’s a hoot to hear such a unified front. Since the advent of home video, the theatrical experience has been marginalized to the point of meaninglessness. Planet Terror argues that, in the right setting, with the right mindset, group participation is a film’s greatest purpose.
For those wondering if the “unrated” label means more and more gore, the answer, oddly enough is undecided. Rodriguez mentions a couple of scenes where the ratings board mandated massive trims (they involve brain eating and torso tearing), but the added back bits don’t really accentuate the excess. Similarly, the director states over and over that he purposefully held back in certain moments, the use of post-production print deterioration and aging helping to increase the level of brutality in his mind. So aside from a few additional seconds of melting testicles, and an overall augmented level of post-gunshot spray, Planet Terror plays exactly like it did in theaters. McGowen still swivels her hips and picks off bad guys with leg weapon ease. Actor Rodriguez is still Rambo with a rebel’s edge. Brolin is still a cuckold clinging to his own inner rage, and Shelton stands in stark contrast to the champions surrounding her. When required to step up, however, she does.
Individuals interested in the backstage particulars of this production will also love the second disc full of behind the scenes info. The “10 Minute Film School” highlights how CGI and camera tricks created many of the movie’s most memorable sequences while “The Badass Babes and Tough Guys” featurette focuses on the cast. “Sickos, Bullets, and Explosions” deals with the movie’s amazing stunts, while “The Friend, The Doctor, and The Real Estate Agent” centers on pals of Rodriguez who stepped up to participate in the film. As usual, the filmmaker uses the DVD format as a way of imparting knowledge and hands-on information to the uninitiated. Perhaps the most telling stat is his desire to keep his part of Grindhouse as cheap as possible, knowing the expanded scope Tarantino was planning for his installment.
If there is one downside to the whole Planet Terror experience, it comes about three-quarters of the way through Rodriguez’s commentary. There, during a lull in the action, he lets the double dip secret out – there will be a legitimate, two disc DVD release of the original Grindhouse sometime in the format’s near future. Now before you go ballistic and start screaming sell-out, remember this: as a project, this daring double feature was always about the films first, the experience second. The unflinching success of both solo outings confirms this fact. Had they been planned as a chaotic combo platter only, neither movie would work outside the setting. But Planet Terror, ‘missing scene’ still intact (yep – no extra McGowan nudity – sorry guys), easily survives its initial attack of cinematic separation anxiety. It remains a great film, and an excellent first digital package.
// Notes from the Road
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