Film

Grindhouse (2007)

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.


Grindhouse

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, John Jaratt, Marley Shelton
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Dimension Films (The Weinstein Company)
Display Artist: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-04-06 (General release)
Website
Trailer
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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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