I suspect, more so than with your average film, one’s reaction to Grindhouse will depend on one’s willingness to buy into the film’s central premise- a recreation of seeing a double feature of exploitation films at one of the numerous decaying old movie theatres that dotted the urban landscape that give the movie its title.
Grindhouse’s collaborating directors, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s previous work has definitely born the influences of the low budget, sex and violence filled films that were the staple of grindhouse programming. However, rather than filter those influences through a post-modern prism – like Tarantino did so admirably with his two Kill Bill films – the pair have instead delivered a straight forward homage to the salacious and gratuitous thrills found within those old, decaying movie palaces.
The first film of Grindhouse’s double bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a zombie film that feels very much of the type put out in the early 1980s by such studios as New World Pictures or Golan-Globus. An illegal arms deal for a cutting-edge bacteriological weapon turns a small Texas town into brain-hungry zombies, leaving only a small group of people immune to the weapon to band together for survival. The characters may be stock – the hardnosed sheriff, the loner with a mysterious past, a stripper looking to make a better life for herself – but everyone seems to have their own secrets and histories that are slowly revealed during the long night of zombie attacks. Rodriguez’s script also remembers one of the basic precepts of these sorts of films that most of the characters will make statements that come back to haunt them at a later point. When the sheriff admonishes a newly deputized posse of zombie hunters “Don’t shoot each other and don’t shoot me,” you know what his inevitable fate will be.
Tarantino’s installment, Death Proof, is a little harder to define. It seems to start off as a car movie but quickly transforms itself into a serial killer thriller before taking a left turn in its third act into revenge film. Far from feeling schizophrenic, the film holds together remarkably well, with a great performance from Kurt Russell as a stuntman who uses his souped-up stunt car as a murder weapon being the glue. Death Proof may start off small, lulling us into a false security as we meet and get to like the first group of Russell’s victims. But when Russell stalks and then has the tables turned on him by his second group of victims, lead by Kill Bill stuntwoman Zoë Bell playing herself, does Tarantino let loose with a car chase sequence that ranks as one of the best and most tense seen on cinema screens ever.
Audiences accustomed to the higher level of presentation found today at most cineplexes may balk at Grindhouse’s visual aping of the variable color quality and damaged condition that grindhouse films usually had. However, the faked print damage is not distracting in the long run and at times the film even plays with premise. At one point a steamy love scene is interrupted when the film appears to get stuck and melt in the projector while another promised steamy scene is never shown due to the film “missing a reel.” In fact, it may even be in the audience’s best interests to avoid seeing this at a theatre of more recent vintage in favor of a venue – much like the downtown Philadelphia theatre I saw the picture in – that may have just been a grindhouse at some point in its past.
There’s plenty of other attention to detail in this recreation. Actual 1970s vintage Coming Attractions announcements are paired up with fake trailers created by modern day directors such as Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. One such trailer, which teases us with a lead performance from long-time action film supporting actor Danny Trejo, is capped off with a retro-design for the film’s two year old distributor The Weinstein Company that screams the ‘70s.
What’s exciting about the Grindhouse concept is that the possibilities for a continuation of it are endless. A sequel could contain features made from the faux trailers seen here. (Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women Of The SS, featuring Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu, is a film that just need to be made.) There are plenty more genres to be explored from sex comedies to blaxploitation actioners to kung fu films to the bad Star Wars-clones that began appearing in the late 70s during grindhouse’s final years. Having already thrilled us once with the exhilarating cinematic cotton candy of the Grindhouse experience, here’s hoping that Tarantino, Rodriguez and their friends are able to schedule us a return trip soon.