Grindhouse (2007)

Directors: Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino

Starring (in “Planet Terror”): Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Bruce Willis

Starring (in “Death Proof”): Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell

Back in the 1970s, the old rundown single-screen theaters which had been popular before the age of television were given a new purpose. Audiences could buy their tickets, go in and enjoy two, three, or sometimes even more films in one night. You could expect several different genres to be represented, including horror, martial arts with badly dubbed English, and even pornography. Often, the films would be in poor shape, having been shipped all around the country and played over and over. By the late 80’s/early 90’s, when I was old enough to go out to the theater, the availability of home video had rendered the grindhouse theaters obsolete. Oh, you’d still get the occasional movie marathons for things like “Star Trek” and the ritual midnight screenings of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but it wasn’t the same experience. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez remember the grindhouse well, and it has helped shape the direction of each man’s career as filmmakers. In 2007, they took their fondness for the grindhouse one step further, creating a double-feature experience for the modern audience. It’s a shame that not everyone got the memo.

In addition to the two feature-length films, “Grindhouse” is armed with a few fake trailers. The first one, for Rodriguez’s Mexploitation film “Machete” (which became a real movie in 2010), features Danny Trejo as Machete Cortez, a former Mexican Federale out for revenge against the swine who hired him to assassinate a Texas Senator and then double-crossed him before he could carry out the assignment. The trailer is bloody violent, but with a sense of humor… exactly what you would come to expect from the director of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Desperado,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “Sin City.” It’s also filled with scratches and skips, just like any grindhouse trailer would be.

The tone is set for the first feature, “Planet Terror,” also directed by Robert Rodriguez. Nothing more or less than a balls to the wall (and, in some cases, the floor) zombie horror film, “Planet Terror” is non-stop fun from beginning to end. It is filled with several memorable characters, including but not limited to: Dr. and Dakota Block (Josh Brolin & Marley Shelton), Texas barbecue connoisseur J.T. Hague (Jeff Fahey), the mysterious badass El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), and his off again/on again flame, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan). But my favorite, mainly because of the actor playing the role, is Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn), brother to J.T. Older and rougher around the edges than during his “Terminator”/”Aliens” days, Biehn plays Sheriff Hague as tough but not unreasonable. He’s also quite anxious for his brother to let him in on the secret to his barbecue sauce, which is a nice recurring bit that plays out during the course of the film. Other familiar faces pop up. Bruce Willis and Quentin Tarantino are soldiers from an army base full of men poisoned by a chemical weapon known as DC2, the source of the zombie epidemic.

An awful lot of stuff happens and then is glossed over, such as a broken wrist and chipped tooth that magically heal themselves in the next reel. Speaking of reels, there’s an in-joke about how sometimes grindhouse films would have missing scenes. Did the audience lose something important in that reel? Quite possible, but you learn to just go with it. The same attitude applies when you think about the implausibility of a woman being able to shoot people with an M4 carbine assault rifle attached to the stump that used to be her right leg. Just go with it! Logic was thrown out the window the moment the zombies showed up.

After the conclusion of “Planet Terror,” at which point several American audience members inexplicably got up and walked out of the theater, there are three more fake trailers. As with “Machete,” they’re made to look scratched up.

First up is “Werewolf Women of the S.S.,” by far the one with the most outlandish title and premise, directed by Rob Zombie. In this Nazisploitation film, it is Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu who completely steals the spotlight. He completely embraces the craziness that has long been associated with his on-screen persona with just one line. Despite this, I have to say this would be the one out of the lot that I would be the least interested in seeing as a full-length movie. The second trailer is for a gothic horror film in the style of a 1970s Hammer Films release entitled “Don’t.” This trailer is as true to the look and feel of a movie from that period as it is in keeping with the tradition of US trailers for 1970s British films being without dialogue. This one might be worth further expansion, though I doubt that Edgar Wright will ever find the time to get around to it. Finally, and my personal favorite, is Eli Roth’s trailer for a holiday-themed slasher film set in Plymouth, Massachusetts called “Thanksgiving.” As a lover of slasher films, and of those from the late 70’s/early 80’s in particular, I really want this one to become a real movie. It’s over-the-top and beyond goofy, but I love it. The music for the trailer consists of two separate tracks from the score for the 1982 horror anthology film “Creepshow.” Michael Biehn appears again, and he gets my nomination for the most hilarious utterance of the phrase “son of a bitch!”

There is another fake trailer, but it only appeared in a limited selection of theaters, most of which were in Canada. The movie is “Hobo with a Shotgun,” an exploitation film with a (very) low-budget feel to it. This one became reality in 2011. The feature-length version, starring Rutger Hauer, is as bizzare as bizzare gets, much like a Z-grade film from the Troma Studios catalogue.

The second part of  the “Grindhouse” double feature is Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” This one is half action thriller, half slasher horror, only the killer’s weapon of choice is his car instead of a knife. As is a staple of Tarantino’s films, “Death Proof” has many uninterrupted scenes of group conversation. Normally, that’s something to look forward to. In “Death Proof,” the dialogue is so bland and uninteresting that I just want to get to the carnage with the car. It feels like it takes millenia, but Stuntman Mike (played fantastically by Kurt Russell) finally delivers the goods at the halfway point. Until then, the highlight is a musical track swiped from another movie. As Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) sends a text message on her phone to what must be her boyfriend, the piano theme “Sally and Jack” from Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” can be heard. Knowing full well the emotions this song carries with it, I can’t help but get a little choked up. The remainder of “Death Proof” is much more enjoyable. This time, Stuntman Mike picks a group of girls who, like him, have experience in the movie business. Oh, and they’re not easily messed with, either. The best of them is Zoe Bell (credited as herself), who previous to “Grindhouse” had gained notoriety as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill,” in addition to doubling for Lucy Lawless on TV’s “Xena: Warrior Princess.” The stuntwork she does on the hood of a “Vanishing Point” 1970 Dodge Challenger is really the coolest part of “Death Proof.”

As I indicated earlier, the experiment failed. Whether because audiences were somehow unclear as to the full content of what they were getting with “Grindhouse,” or because it hit theaters in April when it should have been either a summer or late October release, the experiment failed to generate much box office. But that failure has not killed off the project completely. In addition to “Machete” and “Hobo with a Shotgun,” a sequel to “Machete” (“Machete Kills,” an improvement over its predecessor) was released in 2013, and another sequel has been promised/threatened. Although the “Machete” movies are beginning to move away from the grindhouse feel and into James Bond/Star Wars territory, they’re still using 1970s material. Personally, if not Rodriguez/Tarantino, I’d like to see someone be brave and present audiences with another attempt at channeling the grindhouse spirit. Like vinyl records, in spite of their flaws, movies like this are meant to transport you back in time to a certain era, regardless of whether you were alive then or not.

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