Grindhouse: On its 10th anniversary

Bump ‘n’ grind

We have the poster above hanging on the walls at TC Towers, and it was with a start that I realized we were fast approaching the tenth anniversary of its release. Doesn’t time fly? I was somewhat embarrassed to discover, despite it decorating our home, I didn’t actually have a copy of the movie. But there was enough time to get the BluRay, and so, on Saturday night, we sat down to watch the whole enchilada – as we had done in the cinema back in 2007. How would it fare?

The answer is, reasonably, perhaps surprisingly, well. While we’ll get into more specifics shortly, the tl;dr is this: My conclusion at the time of original release, that Planet Terror was undeniably the stronger of the two, remains the case now. It does a better job of capturing the grindhouse spirit, and even in a market now arguably over-saturated with zombie fare, does enough to stand out from the shambling pack. Death Proof is great… when it gets going, and will always have a place in our hearts, for introducing us to the great and glorious talent that is Zoë Bell. That first 45 minutes though? Excruciatingly bad.

But what makes Grindhouse memorable is not just the features, it was the effort made to create an entire throwback, drive-in experience. Missing reels, damaged film, even semi-random title changes (Death Proof opens with a flash frame of its “real” title, Thunderbolt, before the “changed” one appears). If it was recreating a virtually lost era in 2007, that’s all the more so now, with barely three hundred drive-ins left in America, 20% fewer than at the time of release. Yet it still resonated with fans and film-makers. If not as successful as hoped at the box-office, it did spawn a grindhouse revival, with a number of other films, directly or indirectly influenced and seeking to invoke the same spirit, from Hobo With A Shotgun to Piranha 3D.

Perhaps Grindhouse‘s most memorable single gimmick are the “fake” trailers which accompanied its theatrical release. It opens with the first of these, and I used quotes advisedly. Because this one took on a life of its own, eventually becoming not just one real movie, but a franchise: Machete, and its ill-considered sequel, Machete Kills. It’s somewhat ironic that the first Machete ended up taking more at the American box-office than this double-bill ever did. But it’s a great way to start, setting the tone impeccably: sex, violence and a particularly grubby-looking Danny Trejo. Really, what more could you want? We then charge straight on into…

Planet Terror (2007)

Rating: B

Dir: Robert Rodriguez
Star: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton

When this originally came out, the zombie genre was still clawing its way back out of the grave: the release of Planet Terror came closer to the Dawn of the Dead remake than the debut of The Walking Dead, and subsequent attainment of Peak Zombie. [Though Rodriguez was not as ahead of the curve as he would have been when the idea originally came to him, during filming of The Faculty in 1998.] And you know what? Despite this now being a world where we’ve had World War Z, iZombieCockneys vs. Zombies and even Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, his take still holds up well, thanks to its copious energy and imagination.

The plot is, admittedly, simplistic: military experiment goes wrong in small Texas town. Motley group of locals band together to fend off the infected hordes. Yes: they’re technically not “zombies”. But it walks like a Z, groans like a Z, and gnaws on human flesh like a Z… Copious blood-spatter ensues. It’s not a significantly different story from those we’ve seen before or since. However, how many of them have a pissed-off stripper, sorry, go-go dancer, with a machine gun replacing her leg from the knee down? It’s a concept audacious in its idiocy, but since everyone buys into it – not least Ross McGowan, playing said go-go dancer, Cherry Darling – the audience is dragged along for the ride.

[Quick aside: whatever happened to McGowan? There was a point, right about the release of this, that she seemed on the cusp of stardom. Then… she vanished. Some Googling suggests a streak of bad luck with projects that got stuck in development hell for one reason or another, including other work with then-partner Rodriguez, such as remakes of Barbarella and Red Sonja. She was last heard of in October, stating she was raped by a certain studio exec – while no reputable publication has named names, the replies to her Tweet should slake curiosity about who she apparently means.]

Back in the world of the zombie apocalypse, McGowan gets good support from Freddy Rodriguez as her ex-boyfriend, El Wray, a man with a murky past, which seems to make him well-suited to survive. There’s also unhappily married medical couple Dr. William Block (Brolin) and his anesthesiologist wife, Dakota (Shelton), who are having relationship difficulties, to put it mildly. If you’re familiar with other films from the Rodriguez-Tarantino axis, you’ll recognize others, including Bruce Willis, Michael Parks, Tom Savini and Tarantino himself, in supporting roles. It’s a fun cast to watch, and they all attack the material with enthusiasm, though QT still can’t act his way out of a paper bag. Heck, even Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas, who plays Dakota’s lesbian lover, does better than you might expect. [Fun fact: her feature debut was alongside Paul Walker in Monster in the Closet]

The effects work has stood the test of time very well. The practical work was by the renowned firm of KNB, who now handle the same task on The Walking Dead, and are gloriously messy. But perhaps surprisingly, much of the CGI, from Rodriguez’s in-house company of Troublemaker Digital, still looks good – quite a feat, in a field where just a couple of years can be an aeon in technological advancement. You’ll believe that Cherry not only loses her own leg, but also that it’s replaced, first with one taken from a table, then with a fully-functioning automatic weapon. Perhaps less successful is the digital aging: while amusing the first few times you notice it, this loses all novelty a long time before the end. We get the point, okay?

In the main, however, this is a thoroughly entertaining romp, that manages to strike a good balance, paying homage to the past, without living in it. This is easily as good as any of the films that inspired Rodriguez.

It’s here in the “intermission” we find the bulk of the trailers, each the product of a guest director. It begins with the one I most want to see: Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. with its glorious cast: Nicolas Cage (as Fu Manchu!), Udo Kier, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie and even Sybil Danning, marking her first movie role in close to two decades. It’s approximately a Jeffrey Combs away from being perfect. Edgar Wright’s Don’t may be less star-studded (though I was amused to see Nick Frost as the adult baby, among other cameos by Wright regulars), and nor did it leave me hoping desperately for the trailer to become a real movie. However, it delivers the grubby spirit and feel of those cheap seventies British horror films.

The final one is Eli Roth’s contribution: Thanksgiving, although it’s far from the first horror movie set around that holiday [this distinction appears to belong to the 1981 obscurity Home Sweet Home, available on YouTube]. It’s content caused problems with the MPAA, who initially wanted to give Grindhouse an NC-17, due to it use of subtle, understated elements such as a topless cheerleader on a trampoline, doing the splits and landing on a knife. It’s not clear what compromises were made as a result: one source says “some trimming” was needed, but another says it got the necessary R, with the aid of some “very strategically-placed film scratches.”

With a trip to the concession stand – okay, our fridge – completed, it was time to settle in for the second part of the double-feature. And I hope you got yourself a caffeinated beverage, because you’re going to need it for…

Death Proof (2007)

Rating: C

Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Star: Zoe Bell, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito

I feel there’s a strong argument to be made that Tarantino is a better writer than a director. The films in which he has been involved, where someone else has taken the helm, seem overall to be superior to those where he directed his own scripts. That might be Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn), Tony Scott (True Romance) or even Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers): what they all bring is an ability to rein in QT’s awful tendency to wallow in self-indulgent excess, particularly when it comes to dialogue. They can say, “No, Quentin: these characters are not going to engage in a 10-minute discussion on comic-books,” when Tarantino the director would tell Tarantino the writer, “Great idea! Why not make it 15?”

Which brings us to Death Proof.

The first half had me contemplating gnawing a limb off to escape; it was like being stuck in the worst bachelorette party ever, populated entirely by vagina-toting versions of Quentin Tarantino. Vapid, smug non-entities, flapping their lips at each other as they smoke weed and get drunk, without saying anything of the slightest interest. And this was the regular version, god alone knows what the 127-minute “director’s cut” would be like. In a rare moment of self-awareness, five years later, Tarantino said, “Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make.” And he’s dead right, up to where Stuntman Mike (Russell) finally revs up his titular car and barrels into the gals at top speed, as they blare yet another faux-nostalgic song on the soundtrack. [It is, I believe, Tarantino’s own goddamn jukebox in the film: it doesn’t get much more self-indulgent than that.]

The subsequent silence came as a blessed relief, broken only by my muttering, “For fuck’s sake, Quentin: it’s Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Not Mitch.” If you’re going to be a pretentious cunt, professing love for a forgotten sixties boy band, at least be an accurate one. I suspect he was going for much the same shocking impact with this crash, as the death of Janet Leigh in Psycho. Except, Marion Crane’s stabbing didn’t exactly provoke the same unsympathetic feelings as the fatalities here – best summarized with a rousing chorus of “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” Admittedly I was left wondering, where could the film possibly go?

Then Zoë Bell shows up.

Give Tarantino credit, he wrote the role for her, and let Bell simply be herself. This was probably wise, since she had no real “acting” experience to that point, and having her try to play any kind of character could have backfired. Instead, he just lets Zoë be Zoë, and she delivers a far more credible character than any of the actresses: you believe she actually would know about Vanishing Point, something Rosario Dawson as Abernathy Ross fails to sell. Her dialogue is not the unmistakeable QT honking which poisoned the first half so badly. It sounds like a real person – and, specifically, Zoë Bell [If you need proof, watch the excellent documentary, Double Dare, featuring her and veteran stuntwoman, Jeannie Epper].

This alone wouldn’t be anything like enough to rescue the film. The final reel, however… While the situation to get us there is contrived as all get-out, much like Cherry Darling’s lethal limb in its partner, Planet Terror, the pay-off is so much fun, you can’t help let it slide. And slide Zoë does, all over the bonnet of a 1970 Dodge Challenger, hurtling along rural roads, and pursued with lethal intent by Stuntman Mike. I am still far from sure how they pulled it off. And you know what, I’d rather preserve that mystique, because knowing couldn’t make it any better. “There’s no double, there’s no CGI, it’s all practical,” said Bell. She’s too modest to add, it’s all utterly awesome as well.

But, if ever there were a case of “too little, too late,” this would be it. For what we have here is less Quentin Tarantino’s loving tribute to grindhouse cinema, and more Quentin Tarantino’s loving tribute to Quentin Tarantino.