NOTE: This movie has extremely graphic, grisly, violent, and disgusting images, situations, and characters. It is not appropriate for anyone under 18 or for many adults. The positive rating is only for its intended audience, fans of this genre.
Famously violent but critically acclaimed film-makers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are fans of “grindhouse” movies. A grindhouse was a theater specializing in exploitation films — movies made with no artistic pretense or aspiration, with more attention to the advertising than the storyline. These films were usually not just low-budget but almost no-budget, poorly shot, poorly acted, poorly written. But they had a visceral appeal — usually visceral in literal terms because what they lacked in refinement or insights about the human condition they made up in shock and outrageousness. Despite their undisguised origins as purely commercial — exploitation king Roger Corman is proudly the only producer in history who has made money on every single film — these movies have an unpretentious appeal and even a gritty sincerity that can hold up well against Hollywood confections, especially those that try to hide their resolute commercialism under a veil of pomposity.
Tarantino and Rodriguez have re-created an evening at a grindhouse or a drive-in, circa 1970. It’s a double feature complete with fake trailers (from up and coming directors Eli Roth of Hostel, Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, and Rob Zombie House of 1000 Corpses) and a commercial for the restaurant next door (note that characters from the movie are drinking sodas with its logo), faux scratches on the film and “missing frames” and reels and perfect replica opening credits. Somehow, the stories retain their 70’s vibes, even though they include a few updates like text messaging and references to the war in Iraq.
The first movie is “Planet Terror,” a zombiefest directed by Rodriguez. A pole dancer named Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan of “Charmed”), her former boyfriend Wray (Freddie Rodriguez of Showtime’s “Six Feet Under”), a sheriff (Terminator’s Michael Biehn) and his barbecueing brother (Jeff Fahey), an adulterous doctor with three big needles of anesthetic, and her squabbling twin babysitters face off against some oozing flesh-eaters in a battle so completely over-the-top that it almost makes sense when the lovely leg that got chomped off is replaced by a machine gun as a prosthetic. Talk about your pistol-packin’ mama. And when the zombies come, it’s like the “Thriller” video, without the dancing — or the happy ending.
The second film, directed by Tarantino, is “Death Proof,” starring Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a guy who drives a souped-up “death proof” stunt car and likes to use it as a weapon of mass destruction. Some of the pretty ladies he goes after include Sydney Poitier (daughter of the Oscar-winner), Tracie Toms and Rosario Dawson (both from Rent), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who appeared with Russell in the very different Sky High). This film has some characteristically choice Tarantino dialogue, cheerfully profane, hilariously frank, and divinely corkscrew, like a mash-up between Preston Sturges and Richard Pryor. The first half is mostly talk, talk that manages to mingle street insults, girly confidences, and Robert Frost, plus of course a lot of movie name checks. But when the don’t-take-rides-from-strangers action starts, it is stunning.
The break-out star here is real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing a stuntwoman named Zoe). She more than holds her own as an actress — while she is in the midst of one of the most astonishing stunts in movie history, the “captain’s mast” — with a devilish sizzle and fearless spirit that seem completely natural and utterly engaging.
Rodriguez and Tarantino also bring high spirits that give an organic brio to their mastery of story, tone, and visual story-telling. Their unabashed affection for the grindhouse genre keeps them from becoming arch, po-mo, or self-consciously ironic. This is a tribute, not a parody. At times, they seem to fetishize everything, even the literal film stock itself. There are loving close-ups of female curves, gleaming weapons, and gory wounds. There is sheer delight in the over-the-topiness: when someone says “no-brainer,” he means it literally. They have honored the sources that inspired and entertained them with a low-down, dirty, crazy, joyride that is packing heat, along with some nastily entertaining thrills.
Parents should know that this film includes just about everything that could be of concern in evaluating its appropriateness. It has non-stop intense, gross, graphic, grisly, and disgusting images of violence, including zombies chomping on bodies, attempted rape, torture, and every possible kind of homicidal butchery. Characters use very strong language, smoke, drink, and smoke marijuana. There is nudity, and there are sexual references and situations including a same-sex kiss and adultery. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of loyal friendships between diverse characters.
Audiences who see this movie should talk about how some of today’s most acclaimed directors were inspired by low-budget movies with no artistic aspirations.
Audiences who appreciate this movie will appreciate the other films by its directors, including Pulp Fiction and the Robert Rodriguez Mexico Trilogy, (El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon A Time In Mexico). They may also enjoy some of the movies that inspired this one, including Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat Kill!..kill!, Vanishing Point, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the original, of course). And they will enjoy the comic books that inspired some of these movies, like those collected in The EC Archives: Tales From The Crypt Volume 1.