The 1970s exploitation movie gropes, bites, kicks, slugs, blasts, smashes and cusses its way back to life in “Grindhouse,” a “Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature” that lovingly resurrects a disreputable but cultishly embraced form of era-specific film production and exhibition. A pair of pictures devoted to re-creating their progenitors’ grubby aesthetics and visceral kicks, but with vastly greater budgets, higher-end actors and a patina of hipster cool, they part company when it comes to talent and freshness. The numerous marketing problems for this bizarre pop-culture artifact begin with the three-hour-plus running time and young auds’ unfamiliarity with the format. But the B.O. strength of “Sin City” and “Kill Bill” alone suggests the helmers’ loyal followings will produce a very potent opening frame, with fairly steep fall-off thereafter in the manner of most horror films.
The United States may be the only territory, however, where the whole shebang will come out as one feature, as each picture will be released separately in slightly longer versions overseas.
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As genre rehabs go, “Grindhouse” is more daring and audacious than most, partly due to its conception as an entire program complete with two pictures, four tailor-made trailers and various for-real interstitial bits, but more so because of its stylistic fidelity to its source material. Hollywood cinema, from “Jaws” and “Star Wars” onward, is filled with B-movie material served in A-picture bottles, but Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” mean to reproduce the shot-on-the-run look and feel of genuinely down-and-dirty pics of 35 years ago, all the way to scratchy prints and missing scenes. One certain difference: Neither early George Romero nor the original “Gone in 60 Seconds” had seven-minute end credits scrolls listing things such as director’s chef and greens gang bosses.
On the basis of sheer accuracy, Rodriguez’s installment wins points for more exactly replicating the hollow, soul-sucking badness of many low-grade gore films, even as he raids Romero’s great “Dead” cycle of zombie splatter epics. By contrast, Tarantino’s road-rage opus so far exceeds almost anything made at the time in terms of dialogue and performance that it seems like a different beast, one half plotless gabfest, the other half insane car chase.
Presentation begins with an authentic, beat-up “Prevues of Coming Attractions” banner, which intros a hilarious trailer for a faux actioner called “Machete,” about a mean Mexican hombre on a violent rampage on behalf of illegals. This is one cheapo picture that could do some business, and evidently Rodriguez, who helmed it, thinks so too, as he’s already said he wants to expand it to feature-length.
Accompanied by the built-in sound of projector noise and terrible scratches on the print, “Planet Terror” focuses on a demoralized go-go dancer, Cherry (Rose McGowan), who gets more than she bargained for when she sets out late one night to change her life.
Due to some nasty business at a nearby military base, local residents are lurching around with pus-filled abscesses on their skin and unwholesome appetites. Human roadkill litters the highways and the hospital becomes overrun with disfigured and increasingly violent sickos.
Forced to deal with the crisis are some questionable but mostly attractive lowlifes, including Cherry’s mysterious ex Wray (Freddy Rodriguez); a cop (Michael Biehn) who’s heavily on Wray’s case; feuding married medics (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton) in a race to kill one another before the zombies get the chance; and a barbecue shack owner (Jeff Fahey) on the verge of perfecting a recipe.
Given the recent surfeit of zombie movies, and pretty good ones at that, it’s simply not enough to re-create a highlights reel of favorite genre motifs. Rodriguez occasionally extricates himself from the muck with some genuine gross-out moments, beginning with an exchange over a bulging bag of testicles between Naveen Andrews and Bruce Willis, both in extended cameos.
But when all the generic filler of the episode has been forgotten, “Planet Terror” will still be remembered for one indelible iconographic sight, that of the scantily attired McGowan, her character having lost her right leg in the mayhem, striding back into action with her missing appendage replaced by machine gun. Needless to say, the weapon is put to excellent use in the Romero-inspired finale.
There is a measure of wit in some details — McGowan’s hair and makeup remain impeccable no matter the havoc around her — and some of the thesps, notably the leading lady and Freddy Rodriguez, create something resembling characters in the one-dimensional circumstances. But with the majority of the running time devoted to overly familiar territory, “Planet Terror” delivers only momentary kicks.
An eight-minute “intermission” serves up tasty trailers for three more excellent candidates for exploitation immortality. “Werewolf Women of the SS,” about “Hitler’s plan to create a race of super-women,” stars Udo Kier, Sybil Danning and “Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu,” and is helmed with dead-on crudeness by Rob Zombie. “Don’t,” directed by Edgar Wright, trades hilariously on the enticing “Don’t go in the … ” motif of horror-pic advertising, while “Thanksgiving,” from Eli Roth, cooks up a startling and grisly holiday-themed gorefest.
All this is table setting for the main course, and while Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is a juicy, delicious treat, its pleasures stem much less from the play with genre conventions than from great dialogue and electric performances. The chick-power movie is divided into two parts, both of which are exhilarating for the vibrant bonding and camaraderie they develop among two different sets of young women.
Opening scene simply puts three attractive femmes in a car riding down the main commercial drag in Austin, Texas, talking about sex and drugs. Much as the driving conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” was captivating for its heightened naturalism and specific detail, so does the girl talk here instantly mesmerize through its casual frankness and relaxed humor; so natural are the rhythms of the banter that you instantly believe the women played by relative newcomers Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd are best buds, have no secrets and constantly kid one another about their peccadilloes.
A daytime meal eventually becomes a night of drinking at the funky Texas Chili Parlor. The level of raunch is amped up by booze but the talk remains great, with a touch of the poet at times. Tarantino here lays a claim to being the Joseph L. Mankiewicz of trash talk, so easily does he create reams of dialogue in distinct voices and so well does he direct it.
As boldly as in a late Howard Hawks film like “Hatari!” or “El Dorado,” Tarantino confidently keeps his characters chattering away and lets about a third of the picture go by before anything much happens. Some guys (Roth, Michael Bacall and Omar Doom) try to hit on the girls, and eventually attention turns to the bar, where an older man named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) strikes up a conversation with slinky Pam (McGowan again, this time as a blonde).
A vet movie stuntman with an easy manner, Mike offers Pam a ride home in his mighty Dodge Charger, a stunt-ready vehicle so reinforced as to be “death-proof.” But it doesn’t turn out to be for Pam, as the Jekyll & Hyde-like Mike uses his car like a killing machine.
A second group of women take the baton for pic’s ramped-up second half. Dominating these members of a Tennessee film crew on a break is foul-mouthed Kim (Tracie Thoms). Declaring that, “There’s no point to living in America unless you drive a Dodge Challenger,” fellow stuntwoman Zoe Bell (a New Zealander who was Uma Thurman’s stunt double on “Kill Bill”) gets her hands on one, turning the seg into a massive homage to the 1971 cult drive-in fave “Vanishing Point” as it sets itself up for an extended duel between the girls’ Dodge and that of the now-maniacal Stuntman Mike.
With third wheel Abernathy (a game Rosario Dawson) along for the ride but the fourth pal (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sitting it out, Kim races behind, alongside and in front of Mike on twisty, hilly roads at breakneck speeds with Zoe, spread-eagled like a hood ornament up front. The hair-raising stunts are clearly absolutely real, making the sequence, among other things, a massive middle finger from Tarantino to the interventions of CGI.
Aspects of the chase, which was filmed in the Santa Ynez Valley above Santa Barbara, raise questions, notably as to why Kim doesn’t apply the brakes at key moments when Mike is running alongside her. But the sequence is still a thrill, filled with loads of exciting shots filmed at high speed.
Bell is a relaxed, spirited natural playing herself, and Thoms and Dawson are both a gas. Russell is at his best shooting the breeze in the bar, but also gets off when Mike turns bad.
Tarantino capably serves as his own cinematographer for the first time, and the soundtrack brims with dynamite tunes. Production values throughout boast a deliberately degraded ruggedness.