Grindhouse: Tarantino-Rodriguez Collaboration–Text, Subtext, Context

Text, subtext, and context collide in Grindhouse, the loving tribute from iconic directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to the 1970s exploitation films that have inspired their youths and have shaped their cinematic sensibility as quintessential indie directors coming of age in the 1990s.

A decidedly mixed bag, consisting of two features of equal length (90 minute), Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof” relate to that genre of exploitation flicks in different ways, drawing from them different elements, such as themes, characters, visual motifs, music, mood, and effects.

As is often the case of anthologies, inevitable comparisons will be made between the two features, and thus, let me start by saying that while neither is particularly good, Rodriguez’s is at least a more coherent and entertaining zombie flick than Tarantino’s effort, a schizoid picture that tries (but doesn’t always succeed) to blend the slasher film with the more routine chase actioner.

“Planet Terror” is consciously silly but it’s superior in every way (execution too) to than “Death Proof.” I would have reversed the order and begin with the Tarantino segment rather than the way they are presented now. I know that the whole point is to show two entire pictures in a double-feature format, but judging but what’s onscreen, each segment would have benefited from substantial cutting, resulting in a thrilling 90-minute flick, in toto. Right now, the running time is 186 minutes, including previews that connect the two stories and the end credits.

Since only three or four actors appear in the two features (some playing the same character, while others play new characters), the decision of some European distributors to release “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” separately would not damage the experience at all.

In their previous (and dreadful) anthology, “Four Rooms,” a compilation of four shorts set in the same locale (Chateau Marmont), the Tarantino and Rodriguez segments were the best; the other two by Allison Anders and Alexander Rockwell were downright embarrassing. They also displayed their different approaches, sensibilities and tastes, such as Rodriguez’s penchant for fast-paced montage versus Tarantino’s preference for detailed mise-en-scene and deliberate pacing. Same can be said about “Grindhouse,” a project that, if you look closely enough, tells almost everything you need to know about Rodriguez and Tarantino as filmmakers.

Inspired by the unique distribution of independent “classics” of the 1960s and 1970s, these two bold features are presented together on a drive-in style double-bill, replete with fake trailers, missing reels, and exploitative mayhem. Other grindhouse trademarks that are contained in the two features are sloppy edits,
cheesy dialogue, and honky-tonk music.

Both segments are extremely violent, but in a different way, again reflecting the directors’ subjective tastes and sensibilities. The tons of blood used in “Planet Horror” exceeds everything seen in a Rodriguez film, but one of the interesting elements in “Death Proof,” is that unlike the “Kill Bill” movies, there’s hardly any blood spilled in the story, yet Tarantino is effective in creating ominous menace in other ways. (See below)

More significantly, the features pay homage to different genres of exploitation cinema. Basically a zombie horror flick, Rodriguezs “Planet Terror” unfolds as one long trip to a town ravaged by a mysterious plague (alluding to AIDS). It’s all in the timing. Unfortunately, “Planet Terror” suffers from the recent cycle of zombie pictures; in the press notes, Rodriguez claims that he began thinking about and writing the script before those movies appeared in the market, thus relaunching a small cycle. As a result, “Planet Terror” lacks the freshness and fun it could have had had it been released two or three years ago.

In contrast, representing an uncomfortable combo of a slasher, rough chick-flick, and old-fashioned chase picture, Tarantinos “Death Proof” is a white-knuckle ride behind the wheel of a psycho serial killer (a good, macho Kurt Russell), who’s roving, revving, and racing his car as a death machine.

I suspect the irony of “Grindhouse’s sophisticated marketing and wide distribution in state-of-the art theaters is not lost on the bright and gifted Tarantino and Rodriguez. As contempo viewers, you will go into a “safe” and perhaps lush multiplex and watch this program as opposed to being in a “dangerous” grindhouse, where the experience would be interrupted by viewers talking, listening to their own music, and smoking cigarettes and good stuff too–trust me on this, I have been there.

Both “Planet Horror” and “Death Proof” are at once retro-nostalgic and cool-progressive, though, again, this strategy works better for Rodriguez than for Tarantino. It’s like the directors planted one foot in the past, in film history, and the other foot in the very present to create idiosyncratic cinematic world that are uniquely and wholly their own. (Whether you like or dislike their work, both Tarantino and Rodriguez are visionary directors in the best sense of this term).

“Planet Terror” builds upon Rodriguez’s previous films, marked by quick-paced, frenetic energy, and explosive blood. The saga finds noir-inspired romance amidst a future-shock vision of a chemical apocalypse. Informed by “Zombie” and “Dawn of the Dead,” as well as by the work of director John Carpenter (“Escape from New York,” “Halloween,” “The Thing”), Rodriguez creates a dynamic, fast-pacing take on the zombie genre, first displaying and then exploding (literally) that genre’s thematic and visual clichs.

A “simple” night in a small and dormant Texas town gives way to paranoia and espionage and hidden identities in a narrative that progressively get more convoluted than complex–by design. Laced with healthy dosage of humor and occasionally sharp irony, “Planet Terror” is a retro-futuristic vision of horror thats been weathered and stripped to the extreme.

The plot kicks into action, when married doctors William and Dakota Block (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton) find their graveyard shift inundated with townspeople ravaged by gangrenous sores and a suspiciously vacant look in their eyes. Among the wounded is Cherry (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer whose leg was ripped from her body during a roadside attack. Wray (Freddy Rodriguez of TV’s “Six Feet Under”), her former companion, is at Cherry’s side watching and urging her to get back to action.

After a build-up and some necessary exposition, Rodriguez gives up on any semblance of plot and resorts to high-camp action and graphic special effects. Shrewdly, though, he keeps McGowan, who has never looked so sexy or beautiful, center stage, by giving her character a wooden leg that later on becomes a huge machine gun (You have to see it to believe it). The point is made: Cherry, a babe dressed in mini leather skirt and tight, deep-cleavage shirt, may be down but she hasnt danced her last number.

As the invalids quickly become enraged aggressors, Cherry and Wray lead a team of accidental warriors into the night, hurtling towards a destiny that will leave millions infected, countless dead, and a lucky few struggling to find the last safe corner of Planet Terror. The segment ends up on a high note at the airport in a hilarious scene that cannot be described here without spoiling the fun.

After some previews, that allow us to regain our breath, we switch to Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” which characteristically begins with intense, semi-witty dialogue. The novelty here that with the exception of Kurt Russell’s serial killer, the rest of the protagonists are bad-ass, foul-mouthed women, half of whom are actresses of color. I don’t think I have seen a recent Hollywood movie, in which the best-written and best-acted parts belong to the women; Rodriguez and Tarantino should be congratulated for that. And what a gorgeous collection they are: short blonde hair and fair-skinned women, long-haired and dark-skinned femme, sexy Latinas and African-American.

Take Jungle Julia (the stunning looking Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Austins hottest DJ, who grabs the opportunity to unwind with two of her closest friends, Shanna and Arlene (Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito). With bravado, this three-fox posse sets out into the night, turning heads from Gueros to the Texas Chili Parlor.

Not all the attention they get is innocent. Covertly tracking the women’s moves is Stuntman Mike (Russell), a scarred, weathered rebel, clad in black-leather jacket, who’s first seen eating like a pig at a cheap restaurant. Sitting at the bar, he’s listening to the girls’ talk. Insurmountable tension builds with each sideways glance from Stuntman Mike, the loner with the Elvis-like pompadour, before leering from behind the wheel of his muscle car. As the girls settle into their beers, Mikes weapon, a white-hot juggernaut, revs just feet away.

After a lethal accident, Tarantino switches to a second quartet of tough femmes
(played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zo Bell), who work on a cheesy movie in various capacities. Closest to a lead is Zoe Bell (also her character’s name), the New Zealander who served as Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman in the “Kill Bill” movies. Unlike the first quartet of femme, this one, also multi-racial, is tougher, and not just in lingo and gestures. Using their skills to the max, they decide to take action against Mike.

Last reel of “Death Proof” becomes a lethal revenge saga, unfolding as a prolonged and interrupted chase scene. It’s primitively but impressively executed with no use of CGI, reflecting the state-of-movie-technology in the 1970s. I don’t think Tarantino had ever staged such a chase, in which Zoe straps herself to the car that Tracie Thoms is driving; it feels as if he’s determined to make the most of it.

“Death Proof” is Tarantinos most linear film, based on chronological presentation of events and subplots. However, though the action is sequential, the contents of this narrative are just as eccentric as that of his former films.

Strangely, a good portion of the dialogue, one of Tarantino’s strongest suits, is disappointingly flat and even repetitious, particularly in the sequences of the second female team. Several scenes involving arguments between Zoe and Tracy (one about who will dominate) fall flat and lack the usual playfulness associated with Tarantino.

No stranger to blending genres, Tarantino tries to fuse the chase and slasher genres to some mixed results. That said, under his helm, Jungle Julia and Zo Bell (and the rest of the females) turn the concept of the final girl, a staple of the slasher genre, on its ears, leading to a distinct narrative of revenge-by-proxy.

The quartets represent a new breed of women, none of whom screams in the manner of Hitchcocks Marion Crane and other women in horror flicks. They are the kind of women that would make proud an actress like Pam Grier, queen of 1970s exploitation flicks, who starred in Tarantino’s 1997 saga, “Jackie Brow,” still his most emotionally mature film to date.

This being a Tarantino work, “Death Proof” references at least half a dozen classic chase movies you would recognize, from H.B. Halickis indie “Gone in 60 Seconds,” which contained a non-stop 40-minute car chase, to “Vanishing Point,” the nihilistic chase flick, to “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry,” a Peter Fonda cult vehicle.
Tarantino has also studied carefully such classic fare as Bob Clarks “Black Christmas,” Herschell Gordon Lewiss “Blood Feast,” and “House at the Edge of the Park,” among others, for the advent of the predatory psycho.

As noted, as much as “Death Proof” tries to display an authentic 1970s sensibility, in fashion, transportation and other ways, the characters, their conditions, and verbose patter are personal and postmodern. Tarantino delights in the details of these womens everyday lives: expressions of romance that are abbreviated and delivered via text message, descriptions of hookups and dating rules, exasperation with self-reflexive careers. It makes perfect sense that all the characters are in the movie biz in occupations that are considered by most (but not by Tarantino) as peripheral: stunt work, makeup, and so on.

The film’s previews are made by Edgar Wright, who directed “Shawn of the Dead,” and Eli Roth, the director of “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” which Tarantino produced. Roth also plays a crucial part. Roth’s slasher film trailer uses the one American holiday never used in such flicks, Thanksgiving. (You can imagine that the turkey plays the lead in his short). Edgar Wright has made a 1970s-style British horror film trailer, based on his memory that actors seldom opened their mouths since the directors didn’t want to limit the appeal of their features to British audiences. Rounding out the trio of trailer guest directors is Rob Zombie, famed director of B-pictures.

Along with the previews, title cards that state “a missing reel” and “apologies for inconvenience” there are other elements that bring unity to the double-feature. Chief among them are Tarantino’s appearances as an actor in both segments, and the work of Maestro Greg Nicotero, who created the striking special effects makeup in both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof.”

I was a student at Columbia at the end of the exploitation era, just before the VCR Revolution. If memory serves, the various movies labeled as exploitation included a diverse range of splatter, slasher, sexploitation, blaxploitation, cannibal and mondo movies, all grouped together and shown with graphic trailers. In other words, the term exploitation applied more to the intent, mood, and style of those movies rather than to their nominal genre, themes, and characterizations. Hence, any movie, including gay soft and hard porn could be marketed and sold as exploitation.

Often, the term exploitation was used to describe the conditions of exhibition and viewing since some theaters (at least in New York, where I lived at the time) proudly “specialized” in such seedy fare. Exploitation was movie exhibition in its alternative heyday, simultaneously run-down and vividly alive. They were old, dilapidated houses and often all-night theaters that would play two or three movies for the price of one.

At times projectionists would cut out the cool frames of all the neat monster gags. I went to see John Carpenters “The Thing” at the drive-in, and I was talking to the projectionist, and he said, Oh, check this out. And he had cut out a frame of the spider head just because he thought it was a cool monster. After the movies were sent across the country, every projectionist could exercise his will and take a couple of frames out, or if the film broke out, they didnt really care how they put it back together. The audience left at the house would watch prints that have been tempered withor destroyedand still enjoy the experience.

Meaning of Grindhouse

The origins of the term Grindhouse are vague: some cite the types of films shown (as in Bump-and-Grind) in run-down former movie palaces; others point to a presentation mode, movies were grinded out in ancient projectors one after another.