- Let the zombie-fu begin: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton and Naveen Andrews get loaded.
Pop will eat itself, some mocking wags sneered a couple decades back. Indeed, the self-consuming culture buffet continues apace. And the freshest menu item, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's film Grindhouse, is a flat-out Möbius strip of regurgitated pop culture gussied up as homage. The premise alone has me in a spiral: A pair of talented filmmakers spend over $50 million to replicate the experience of seeing a C-grade movie in a crappy theater to a generation raised on videotapes in suburban rec rooms.
This is where old-timers like me get to carp: No clever filmmaking can deliver the real atmosphere of a grindhouse. The busted seats and torn-up screen; decades of accumulated smoke and grime; rats as big as cats; the random sad sacks in attendance; and, on the upside, the frisson of being somewhere seedy, selective and slightly off--the-grid. The grindhouse aficionado, in the days before readily available video, thrived on seeing films that were shocking, scandalous or amusingly bad, or which gave cinematic voice to an otherwise neglected minority (blacks, martial artists, hippies, hippie-killers, nymphomaniacs and sadistic women in prison).
But whatever -- these days, like everybody else, I'd rather lounge in a comfy stadium-style seat, while still enjoying a cheesy entertaining action film. And to that end, Grindhouse, a three-hour-plus "exploitation" double-feature, delivers.
Rodriguez, who's been splitting his work between blood-soaked kill sprees (Sin City) and flashy kiddie fare (Spy Kids), unspools his B-movie first: Planet Terror, or one night of zombie trouble in the hills outside Austin, Texas. A plucky gang, led by a stripper (Rose McGowan) and her ex (Freddy Rodriguez), hunker down at a BBQ joint to coordinate headshots. Planet is sprinkled with recognizable faces -- Lost's Naveen Andrews, Black Eyed Pea Fergie, Bruce Willis, Tarantino and Pittsburgh's own zombie-flick special-effects master emeritus Tom Savini.
Despite a legacy of zombie horror designed to scare, Planet owes more to self-aware projects like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, Troma and Shaun of the Dead than to any old-school exploitation features. Rodriguez's tongue is firmly in cheek, the jokes are frequent, and there's not a fright to be had. You will shriek at the incredible level of comic gross-out: Truly, no body part, living or undead, is safe from abuse.
Planet is bookended by four trailers for other grindhouse features. The best of them is the opener, for Machete -- a violent Mexican migrant-worker revenge pic starring Danny Trejo. But the trailers' brevity makes them all tasty treats, and it was an inspired idea to have contemporary B-grade horror directors like Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright (Shaun) and Eli Roth (Hostel) put 'em together.
I have four words of advice for the second film, Tarantino's Deathproof: less talk, more rock. His tale of hotties stalked by a crazed driver starts slow, with much gal chit-chat and lounging around in Austin watering holes. Then we meet Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) and his street rod. You should probably never accept a ride from a scarred-up dude who calls his car "deathproof," but some girl does -- and there's a welcome burst of auto mayhem.
After a comic interlude that harkens back to Planet Terror, Tarantino winds up for another chick gab-fest. Not only do these sequences veer dangerously close to any other chick flick (but with more "fucks"), but the once fabled Q-does-talk gimmick feels forced and self-conscious. When his girls casually name-check a slew of '70s cars-ploitation films, it's less about plot exposition than Tarantino's fantasy: the hot babe who lives for repeated screenings of Vanishing Point, cherishes a 440 Magnum, and gets the film's belabored Telefon reference.
But after soldiering through this jaw-fest, featuring Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, there's a full reel of pay-off. Tarantino revs up his directing chops, and the last 20 minutes of Deathproof are a white-knuckle, high-speed demo derby, with some brutal Dodge-on-Dodge violence.
Both directors approximate some of the technical flaws and cheap style that were hallmarks of exploitation films, such as cheesy credit titles and missing reels. Rodriguez shoots Planet in grainy digital video, and lovingly garnishes it with ersatz scratches and goofs designed to mimic projection troubles. (This is the cinematic equivalent of using the dirty-typewriter-key font.) But the special effects are top-notch, and with the exception of some deliberate lingering shots on tits and asses, both films are free from the shoddy camera work and don't-know-or-don't-care direction that marks genuine crap cinema. Tellingly, for these two bad-boy perfectionists, the sound is fine, which was a serious drawback in actual grindhouse features.
But here's the ultimate self-referential joke: Any flaw in Grindhouse -- poor pacing, bad acting, head-scratching plot, even directorial self-indulgence -- goes right down the rabbit hole of "we're intentionally making a bad film." Tarantino's draggy talk sessions: deluded director in love with his own script, or sly homage to the many exploitation flicks that stretched out expensive action sequences with cheap talky filler?
While Grindhouse trumpets the neglected "artistry" of the fringe, it ironically succeeds by being a very mainstream version of the outside it claims to celebrate. Sure, it's full of in-jokes for the shlock-film nerds. But both directors, despite their love of bad flicks, are skilled in delivering meticulously thought-out and well-constructed entertainment -- budget or no budget (think of their no-money debuts, Rodriguez's El Mariachi and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and how impressed you were). The very essence of Grindhouse is to be silly, derivative and gloriously solipsistic, so how can we complain when it is? In this crazy tumble of pop-on-pop, all that matters is: Is it entertaining? Absolutely.