You know what this is? It’s simplicity itself. You see you point it at who you want to die and you pull the little trigger here and the little bullet comes out the other end.
—The Rapist (Quentin Tarantino), Planet Terror
The trick of Grindhouse approximates “simplicity itself.” That doesn’t make it quite simple, though. Rather, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation twofer is messy good fun, a bunch of cherished images run through some machinery and reassembled to imitate memories more than the movies it purports to adore. An extravaganza of self-love, it recalls selectively, including the splatter and the girls, cars, and zombies, omitting the anger and emotional investment that characterized 1970s’ exploitation fare. Where the olden days movies were fierce, these are more nostalgic for a moment that’s amplified in the remembering. These retreads are surely giddy, but they’re also indulgent, just as they mean to be.
All the genuflecting to scratched-up celluloid, Tom Savini-style gore effects (he shows up a to-be-splatted cop), and real-metal-smashing auto crashes is less interesting than how they both fear and love bodacious females. That said, it’s great to see Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey resurrected (as brothers, no less), as well as actual stunt-person Zoë Bell (she doubled Uma Thurman in the Kill Bills) riding atop a careening 1970 Dodge Challenger with a white paint job (her character Zoë‘s dream car). If some gags are too obvious (Tarantino’s extreme drippy dick) and others too prolonged (Snake Plissken’s teary collapse), the intermittent rambunction is mostly entertaining. The trailers that run before and between the movies are already legendary (one starring the most excellent Danny Trejo, as “Machete,” action hero from infierno, another a holiday-themed slasher flick by fanboy extraordinaire Eli Roth), and they make a strong case for brevity when making homages.
At the center of the two main movies is Rose McGowan, who plays Cherry Darling, dark-haired go-go dancer and aspiring standup comic in Planet Terror, her full red lips and perfectly tight bra-top and boots suggesting she will fulfill someone’s dreams (no matter the rumors of her romance with Rodriguez). Even better, when Cherry loses a leg to cannibalistic zombies, she dons a machine gun prosthesis to blast the remaining monsters to pieces. In this movie, McGowan is the ultimate survivor, facing down loss and fear and the return of her long-gone ex (Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez, whose brilliant performance fulfills his own promise). In Tarantino’s movie, Death Proof, McGowan plays blond-wigged Pam, whose fate in a souped-up Dodge Challenger with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is even more dire. In this incarnation, McGowan is the ultimate victim, a sad little barfly who sets up your thirst for vengeance against her psycho-abuser. A too-neat circle that takes slightly too long to complete, the films’ complementary logics find their most effective embodiment in McGowan, a ‘70s-style movie star born three decades later.
Rose McGowan and Marley Shelton star in Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror.
Rodriguez’s Planet Terror rightly loves Cherry—check the pause when she rounds her lips flawlessly to blow smoke from the machine gun—but it also understands Wray. He’s flat-out beautiful, even surrounded by more conventional beauties, whose cleavage-baring number includes gigantic-eyed Marley Shelton as Dr. Block and Fergie (of all people) as the doctor’s secret girlfriend Tammy, as well as the less than sensational Crazy Babysitter Twins (Elise and Electra Avellán). Held back through much of the action by Sheriff Hague’s (Biehn) distrust, when at last he’s loosed, his shooting, kicking, and flipping action is more poetic than athletic. Nearly unassuming when still, Wray is a remarkable magician of violence, his moves perfectly choreographed, his aim dead-on. He assures Cherry, “I never miss,” just before she launches herself through a crowd of zombies in order to retrieve the truck that will transport the small band of human survivors to safety in Mexico. (This nice little bit of inversion—where the promised land is south rather than north—is the movie’s cleverest joke: the Border Patrol has no concept of its backwardsness.)
Per formula, they’re on the run from a man-made menace, the zombies resulting from the intentional spread of a viral toxin “brought back” from the war in Iraq by military thugs. Led by Colonel Muldoon (Bruce Willis), this crew is desperately infected, their faces occasionally melting off, when removed too long from their not-quite-antidote. A scientist named Abby (Naveen Andrews) is working on the cure, but the soldiers want it all ways—the monstrosity as perfect war-machinery and occasional relief from oozy limbs and faces. Tarantino’s solider boy, credited as “The Rapist,” makes an effort to assault Cherry, but can’t quite get it up, as his penis is literally falling off as he approaches her, in a scene that inspires actual yelps of pleasure from viewers).
Opposed to the clearly marked villains, Freddy Rodriguez’s grace makes his otherwise familiar part—reluctant-but-gritty-and-determined hero—seem like something new. More sensitive than brutal, shorter than anyone else in sight, Wray is also a fully thrilling action figure, the model for the girls who learn to fight back. In Death Proof, by contrast, the boys are pretty much all bad. This leaves the full spectrum of victimization and heroism to the girls. These include radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and pouty amateur lap-dancer Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), introduced while riding in their car and chattering on about sex.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy), Zoe Bell (Zoe) and Tracie Thomas (Kim) star in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.
Bruce Willis is Muldoon in
Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.
They don’t know they’re on their way to meet Stuntman Mike, who scouts them at a bar while eating nachos in a series of lip-smacking close-ups. He performs as a charmer, his Icy Hot-logoed jacket and long facial scar obligatory emblems of his past pain. Pretending to appreciate curves and ambition, he’s also vaguely resentful that he’s no longer the object of desire he once imagined himself. When he lists his credits—Vega$ and The Virginian—his listeners look blank. Stuntman Mike is a has-been who means to frighten them into recognizing his significance, his self-regard and ignorance symbolized by his Charger. Antique and fabulous and tricked out to be, as he says, “death-proof” (for the driver, anyway), the car is at ominous and outdated.
Once Stuntman Mike makes his presence known, the girls in their shorts and drinking shots start to look like so many sorority girls just waiting to be stalked. The film’s second half doesn’t so much reverse the energy as it reframes it. More outrageous and assured than Planet Terror, Death Proof turns into a big fat car-chase flick that proudly namechecks its sources (Vanishing Point, Dirt Mary Crazy Larry, Gone in Sixty Seconds, “the real one, not that Angelina Jolie bullshit”) and then exults in the insanity of smashing cars at high speeds. The girls who know these titles—the stunt drivers Zoë and Kim (Tracie Thoms)—explain their meaning to their pals, makeup artist Abernathy (completely enchanting Rosario Dawson) and movie starlet Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), as the camera circles their diner-set discussion (recalling for you and Tarantino the famous scene in Reservoir Dogs). When a local rube asks why Lee’s dressed in a cheerleader’s costume, Abby explains that she’s in a cheerleader movie, which she then has to explain is a “movie about cheerleaders”: this is the sort of insular boyness the girls are up against, whether hyperdumb in the rube’s case or hyperviolent in Stuntman Mike’s case.
The car-on-car action that closes out Death Proof is long and brilliant. Zoë‘s trick—more compelling than Grindhouse‘s and certainly less simple-seeming—is all about investment, emotional, political, and aesthetic. When she and Kim plot to do a “ship’s mast” (Zoë riding the Challenger’s hood while hanging on to belts), it is, as they agree, “stupid shit.” It’s also stunning, especially when the camera takes a long, luxurious look at Abby’s face just at the moment when she realizes how much damn fun she’s having in the passenger’s seat, watching and thrilling to the action, Dawson’s smile spreading over her face like sunshine (Dawson is, as ever, simply and complexly gorgeous at once). The ferocity of the car-fight is something else, but Death Proof understands perfectly the sheer and audacious pleasure of watching.