Grindhouse is not a return to the sordid salad days of drive-in b-movies. It is not a careful or accurate recreation of the original raincoat crowd experience. The name is a gimmick, a throwaway cinematic stunt purposely poised to draw in the curious as well as the converted. Sadly, it seems that both will wind up only slightly disappointed. What Grindhouse is, however, is a slam bam smash 'em up celebration of the freedom given film by the exploitation industry. While the mainstream was sitting back, letting community standards and self-appointed censors determine what could and could not be shown on the nation's theater screens, producers like those in the notorious business brotherhood, 'The 40 Thieves', were blurring the boundaries between the taboo and the marketable. If it weren't for them, and the outrageous movies they made, the modern film works would be languishing in Eisenhower era conservatism.
You can see the adoration that these filmmakers have for the genre's expansion of the language of cinema within every frame of this far out double feature. Since directors Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino understand that no one can recapture the actual feel of these fascinating entertainment relics, the next best thing in their mind is to make sure any tribute is terrific. For his infected human holocaust known as Planet Terror, Rodriguez reimagines the zombie film as a combination gorefest and chick flick. We spend so much time with put upon go-go gal Cherry Darling and equally tormented Dr. Dakota Block that the plentiful grue tends to trip up the ample emotional undercurrent. The same thing applies to Quentin Tarantino's car crash thriller Death Proof. Here, we're dealing with non-erotic female bonding, with sensational scenes of female empowerment breaking up the otherwise astounding action sequences.
It's interesting to note that both films feature female heroines and mostly male villains. In the case of Planet Terror, cameos from Bruce Willis and QT himself bring a decidedly paternalist pall over the entire proceedings. Even with Freddy Rodriguez's machismo man turn as Wray, it's the girls dealing most of the death blows. Tarantino treads a little more lightly in his film, giving the ladies room to gossip and cruise before turning them against their tormentor. Perhaps even more startling, Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike is a wonderful contradiction in testosterone terms. When he's able to torment his prey, forcing them to realize the fate that awaits them, he's all chest-puffing bluster. But the minute he gets injured – or perhaps, a better way to say it is the second someone gets a physical advantage over him – he whines and cries like a sissified stuck pig.
It's an interesting dynamic to explore, one you're not used to seeing on the big screen. But this is what Grindhouse is all about – challenging convention, disrupting the status quo and pushing the envelope of acceptable cinematic content. There is a lot of gore here – more than perhaps any dozen so called horror fests could ever hope to achieve. Rodriguez especially loves to pour on the arterial spray, and there are times when torrents of red stuff shoot off across the frame in ridiculous rivers of rot. Credit has to go to all the F/X technicians and stunt people who worked on this project. Tarantino's first act car wreck has got to be one of the most disturbing destructive images ever captured on film. You feel like you're looking at one of those driver's education shockers, the ones that warned you via real dead bodies posed post-catastrophe.
Even more interesting are the performances. Though many critics would have you believe that the cast of both Planet Terror and Death Proof are putting on their purposeful schlock shoes to imitate bad camp acting from the past, this is definitely not the case. Indeed, all throughout Mr. Pulp Fiction's flick, we are treated to some of the liveliest work any actress has offered onscreen this year. Rosario Dawson, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito are fine in their sly supporting turns. Equally effective are Zöe Bell (Uma Thurman's stunt double for Kill Bill), Tracie Thomas, and a fierce Sydney Poitier as the main obsession of Russell's clever creation, Stuntman Mike. From Rodriguez's end of the spectrum, everyone in his company is banging on ballistic cylinders. It's great to see Michael Biehn back, as well as Jeff Fahey in a barbequing badass role. But the movie really belongs to Rose McGowen and Marley Shelton as Cherry and Dakota, respectively. They're the yin and yang of the narrative, the pro and con of a crazy crackpot horror homage.
In fact, the filmmaking here is so stellar that it's hard to continue referring to these films as Grindhouse features. The exploitation movie had no real artistic aspirations. It didn't want to be a provider of great action or a bringer of substantial scare. Their movies were all about the bottom line – carefully creating a project and making sure that, even with limited returns realized, a profit would be more or less guaranteed. Here, Rodriguez wants to give you his take on the entire living dead/sci-fi shock genre, while Tarantino is remaking Vanishing Point with vixens. QT is on fire during his film, both his car chases and his conversations crackling with energy and movement. Our Sin City savant is equally adapt at creating onscreen mayhem. The attack on the hospital, and the stand-off at The Bone Shack are astounding (and let's not even get into the splatter spectacle of the last act helicopter sequence).
And then there are the fake trailers – four in all – and each one is a hilarious joy to behold. First up is the Danny Trejo treasure Machete, a magnificent combination of Charles Bronson badness and Mexicali menace. The shot of our tattooed hero getting hot and heavy with a couple of naked babes is worth the price of admission alone. Then we've got Rob Zombie's ridiculously perfect Werewolf Women of the SS. It’s so much like watching a collection of Ilsa outtakes that it's frightening. Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright delivers his brilliant Hammer/Amicus amalgamation, Don't, and Eli Roth revisits the '80s slasher film with the decidedly sick Thanksgiving. Each one of these mini-movies is magnificent, played perfectly by actors perfectly in sync with what the cinematic category demands. With the possibility of a Machete movie going direct to DVD, it appears there will be more to Grindhouse's legacy than a pair of amazingly entertaining movies by a couple of maverick filmmakers.
All of which begs the question – why isn't this superior entertainment more successful? Are people really put off by all the violence? Did the Weinstein's (the main men behind the movie) make a fatal error in not marketing the movie beyond the film geek demo? Have gals avoided what is probably the most potent girl power proclamation since The Bride battled Bill for reclamation of her life, simply because they think this is some silly slice of jock rock? Whatever the reason, individuals interested in spending three hours under the spell of some significant cinematic art would be well advised to queue up for this masterwork. Unlike the films it fancies, this Grindhouse may have a shorter theatrical engagement than anyone involved initially imaged. The reason for such a showing remains a mystery. But one things for certain – this is a resplendent reminder of why movies are magic – and the forbidden zone trooping talents that created the original pathways to said illusions.