Grindhouse (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The term "grindhouse" refers to a specific type of '60s and '70s exploitation film: the sex-and-gore soaked fare that played in run-down urban cinemas and drive-in theaters. With their consistently poor production values and often horrifically bad direction and acting, grindhouse movies developed a cult following that reveled in such guilty pleasures and accepted them for what they were. Filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were among the charter members of this fan club and their previous work has been informed to one degree or another by their love of these movies. With Grindhouse, a valentine to exploitation films, it's all out in the open. Depending on your point-of-view, this is either a nostalgic stroll through a cheesy slice of American pop culture or an attempt to provide a tongue-in-cheek reinvigoration of it. Most likely, it's a little of both.

Grindhouse is not going to appeal to everyone. This is cinema as an expression of pulp with attitude rather than art in a conventional sense. It's the ultimate genre film and those without an appreciation for the genre aren't likely to be convinced by anything co-directors Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino say or do. These guys are speaking from the hearts, and their work here is a proverbial labor of love. But that doesn't mean everyone sitting in the theater will get it or, indeed, is intended to get it.

The film is structured as a double feature with a single fake trailer at the outset and three more during the intermission. (Those wanting to take a real break will have to miss at least one of the trailers.) Although both features fall under the "grindhouse" label, they are different sorts of expression. Rodriguez's Planet Terror, which bats lead-off, is a tongue-and-cheek satire of the exploitation genre, with excesses that goes so far over-the-top that the production veers into comedy. Rodriguez is intentionally making a very bad film, which is precisely how one lampoons this sort of movie. Tarantino, on the other hand, has elected to play things straight. His Death Proof is a largely sincere attempt to re-create a grindhouse effort in 2007.

The four fake trailers, each between two and three minutes long, are spoofs. Rodriguez offers Machete, with Danny Trejo as a wronged Mexican out for bloody revenge. Rob Zombie provides Werewolf Women of the S.S. (the title is all that needs to be mentioned). Edgar Wright's Don't Scream is the weakest of the faux previews. The best is Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, which was made after a careful study of the late '70s trailers for John Carpenter's Halloween, which it mimics.

Planet Terror offers a familiar horror storyline: a ragtag group of survivors battling against an army of zombies. As the stripper Cherry, Rose McGowan is the standout here. After having her leg gnawed off by the diseased creatures, she rebounds with a fake limb that doubles as a gun and rocket launcher. Cherry's not the kind of girl you want to mess with. She's surrounded by the usual suspects, including Freddy Rodriguez as Wray (who's really good with guns and knives), Marley Shelton as Dr. Dakota Block (who's really good with needles), and Bruce Willis as a corrupt military guy (who's not good with much of anything).

Death Proof features Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a psycho who has suffered a few too many blows to the head. Mike hangs out at a bar where he picks up a girl for a ride in his car that she'll never forget. When he's done with her, he goes back to play with her friends, who are paying too much attention to the radio and too little attention to the road ahead. Later, he decides to play cat-and-mouse games with some other women, but this time he makes a mistake when choosing his prey.

Rodriguez's is the lighter of the two films. If there's a genre convention he misses, I'm hard pressed to figure out what it is. He references at least a dozen zombie films, most obviously those by George A. Romero. There's plenty of extreme gore to go along with the explosions and the action. McGowan is great, and who can't help be wowed by the sight of her spinning 360 degrees while mowing down zombies with her leg-gun. For Planet Terror, that's the money shot. It's obvious that in making this movie, Rodriguez allowed himself a little indulgence. If only he hadn't thrown in the Tarantino cameo. (Q.T.'s acting hasn't improved and he sticks out like a sore thumb when he appears on screen, which happens during both ends of this double-bill.)

Death Proof is oddly structured. Much as Grindhouse is comprised of two pieces, so too is Death Proof. The first half spins its wheels a little on launch with the chit-chat of the girls at the bar coming across as flat. There's a big-time payoff to this segment, but it takes a while to get there. As soon as Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan get into his car, Tarantino ratchets things up. Shortly thereafter, the cast turns over and that's when Death Proof takes off. The conversation between Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell is vintage Tarantino, filled with all the riffs and verbal jousting one expects from the director's dialogue. From there, it doesn't take long for the movie to downshift its resemblance from Duel to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! As always, Tarantino loves throwing in the pop references and they come fast and furious, with nods to TV shows, movies (especially Vanishing Point), and music. As a testament to the director's fetishes, there are lots of shots of tight buns and bare feet.

In an attempt to more effectively replicate the grindhouse experience, Tarantino and Rodriguez intentionally scratched up the negatives to make it appear as if the prints are worn and in some cases badly spliced. Each feature has a missing reel (Tarantino uses this opportunity to make a joke at the viewer's expense, and it's pretty funny). The stock "burns" at one time and there are those oh-so-cheesy "coming attractions" inserts.

Here's a little irony worth mentioning. In 2003, the Weinsteins elected to split Tarantino's previous feature, Kill Bill, into two volumes to maximize profit. The result was a single story awkwardly subdivided into a pair of inferior films. Grindhouse represents the opposite: two individual movies spliced into a single, long movie going experience. I suppose one could consider this cinematic karma, and it effectively debunks the argument that Kill Bill was bifurcated due to its length. At 3:10, Grindhouse is as long as any single-volume Kill Bill would have been.

Those going to Grindhouse need to be prepared for a long afternoon or evening at the theater. Because there's more variety here than one normally finds in a long film, things move pretty fast, but a 190 minute commitment is still a 190 minute commitment. It's possible to argue which end of the twin billing offers the better 90 minutes, but both have their strengths and weaknesses. Death Proof doesn't have Planet Terror's humor, pyrotechnics, and high action quotient; Planet Terror lacks Death Proof's dialogue, innovative car chases, and brilliantly realized "big moments."

There's no question that Grindhouse accomplishes what the directors set out to do - open up the exploitation movie experience to a new generation while steeping it in nostalgia for older viewers. There's nothing brilliant or groundbreaking about the film (in fact, both directors have done better work in previous projects), but it is solidly, unabashedly entertaining. Grindhouse is the kind of movie where it's necessary to put aside pretensions and enjoy the product on its terms, with all the sexiness, violence, gore, and camp as part of the parcel. This is three-plus hours of gleeful-but-guilty escapism.

Grindhouse (United States, 2007)