It’s easy to imagine “From Dusk Till Dawn” as the all-time favorite film of Christian Slater’s film-geek character in “True Romance.” A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of road-kill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys, while more refined types who considered “Pulp Fiction” an art film and are ready to knock writer and co-star Quentin Tarantino, as well as director Robert Rodriguez, down a notch will find the ammo they need here. But the target audience will get its money’s worth, translating into some potent, if not particularly sustained, B.O. and a vibrant afterlife in subsequent markets.
Written by Tarantino in 1990, two years before “Reservoir Dogs” made him a major cult figure, “Dusk” is actually two films in one, the longer first section being a brotherly variation on “Natural Born Killers,” the second coming off as a “Night of the Living Dead”-tinged offshoot of John Carpenter’s 1976 low-budget classic, “Assault on Precinct 13”– a fact acknowledged by one character’s T-shirt. With its elaborate special effects, heavy ammunition and fancy cast, this is a great 1970s-style exploitationer, a kick-butt actioner with plenty of laughs.
As such, it is thoroughly disreputable, which will be just fine with young genre fans. What demands attention by a wider audience is George Clooney’s instant emergence as a full-fledged movie star. From the first scene, it is clear that the “ER” sensation, who has made numerous forgettable pics in the past, has the looks, authority and action-film savvy to be a new Clark Gable or “Mad Max”-mold Mel Gibson.
What also jumps out from the opening scene is a reminder, as if it were needed, of Tarantino’s indelible touch with dialogue. Michael Parks, as a Texas Ranger, gives an uproarious reading of some corking redneck speeches before getting blown away by the unstable Gecko brothers (Clooney and Tarantino), who are headed for a safe haven in Mexico after a bloody crime spree.
After the more psychotic of the two, Tarantino’s little brother Richard, needlessly murders one hostage, the boys find new ones in Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), a preacher who’s lost his faith after the accidental death of his wife, and his two teenage kids — daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Chinese son Scott (Ernest Liu). Their guns ever drawn, the Geckos commandeer the Fullers’ R.V. for the trip over the border, where they pull up at a joint called the Titty Twister , which qualifies as the raunchiest bar on Earth even before the full nature of its entertainment offerings is revealed.
After some obligatory tough-guy stuff with the resident biker-and-trucker clientele, a sultry snake dance by main attraction Santanico Pandemonium (the ever-stunning Salma Hayek) concludes with her transformation into a hideous monster, and the blood feast is on.
Improvising as best they can, the Geckos and their hostages are joined by the formidable Frost (blaxploitation great Fred Williamson) and Sex Machine (special-effects meister Tom Savini)in battling the resident vampires, although, after they are bitten, the valiant warriors become bloodsucking freaks themselves.
Finally, a la “Precinct 13” and its direct inspiration, Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” the survivors retreat to a small room from which they prepare their final assault and escape. Entire section pops with all manner of grotesquely imaginative violence that the special makeup effects hands at Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group have tackled with unmitigated glee.
It’s thoroughly juvenile stuff pulled off with lowdown flair and relentless energy by Rodriguez, whose dusty town from “El Mariachi” and “Desperado” could easily be just down the road from the Titty Twister. The technical skill is protean, from Guillermo Navarro’s restless camera and Rodriguez’s dynamic editing to Cecilia Montiel’s outrageous production design, Graciela Mazon’s leathery costumes and Graeme Revell’s souped-up score. But giving the proceedings a welcome center of gravity is Clooney, who is so commanding as an action hero that he often makes one want to forget that his character is a coldblooded murderer. Even those not tuned into Rodriguez and Tarantino’s gross-out trip might want to check this out for Clooney’s star-making breakthrough.
As the weird kid brother, Tarantino isn’t bad, and generates a few laughs with his straight-faced portrait of dementia and lasciviousness. Keitel is a bit miscast as the solemn ex-pastor, Lewis is at her most subdued, and Cheech Marin has a field day in a triple role especially in delivering an outrageously vulgar welcome to customers at his Mexican dive.