Quentin Tarantino is Elvis: He transforms authentic, relatively obscure influences into pop and improves them in the process. This is true of all Tarantino's films, save perhaps his debut, Reservoir Dogs — an impressive but mechanical heist-gone-wrong flick that falls short of such key influences as The Killing and The Taking of Pelham 123. But it's never been more apparent than in Death Proof, Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, a gonzo double feature he's produced alongside longtime cohort Robert Rodriguez.
The word "grindhouse" refers to the cheap movie theaters of the '70s that ran on a diet of "B" movies and exploitation fare, often packaged as double features. Unlike the mass-released Hollywood movies of today, which may ship 2,000 prints around the country on an opening weekend, very few prints were struck of these "grindhouse" movies. So individual prints would travel from town to town, theater to theater, getting worn down and damaged along the way.
For Grindhouse, Rodriguez and Tarantino have each directed a short "exploitation" feature — Rodriguez's Planet Terror is a zombie flick in the spirit of George Romero; Tarantino's Death Proof is, ostensibly, a car-crazy road movie that pays homage to cult items such as Vanishing Point and Two Lane Blacktop — and surrounded them with "prevues" of fake movies (horror, action, "Nazisploitation") directed by such like-minded filmmakers as Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. The result is a three-hour geek-out salute to subterranean film culture.
To enhance the effect, Tarantino and Rodriguez incorporate the digital illusion of worn prints — scratches, nicks, crackles, missing frames (and, in each feature, a "missing reel") — and troubled projection (poor focus, melting frames), meant to evoke the accidental aesthetic of the "grindhouse." But really, the effect is broader than that. It gave me a flashback to my days manning the 16mm projector at my college film society and reminded me of seeing John Cassavetes' Shadows for the first time at a Minneapolis revival house, where the reels were accidentally shown out of order and most of the people in the theater didn't notice. The content of Grindhouse may be homage to exploitation-movie culture specifically, but in an age of Net-flix DVDs delivered to your home, the form of Grindhouse evokes film as a tactile, mechanical medium and filmgoing as a communal experience.
Rodriguez's Planet Terror leads off and is easily the lesser of the two films. It also, not coincidentally,
The zombie genre is gross-out territory by definition, but Planet Terror goes above and beyond, packing the movie with exploding heads; melting faces; cratered, brainless skulls; and bloody, severed testicles plopping onto wet concrete.
The gore was a bit much for me, but I did find plenty to be thrilled by: Rodriguez turns Rose McGowan — as go-go dancer "Cherry Darling" (I'm hoping this is a Springsteen reference) — into the ultimate cinematic fetish object. The movie opens with her body dominating the screen, performing a lascivious, red-tinted bump-and-grind that ends in tears. By the end, her right leg having been devoured by zombies, she's limping on a machine-gun appendage, using it to mow down the undead. She's a spectacle throughout and is almost equaled by blond newcomer Marley Shelton, whose lesbian adultress "Dr. Dakota Block" becomes a visual marvel as sorrowful, shell-shocked eyes are ringed in black mascara.
Plenty of gonzo moments pay off magnificently: Freddy Rodriguez's roughneck hero rampaging through a zombie-packed hospital corridor, armed only with butterfly knives; fleeing flesh-eaters decapitated by a down-turned helicopter blade.
But, as much "stuff" as there is to look at here, Planet Terror is held back by filmmaking limitations that the perfection of Death Proof only underscores. (There's a risky attempt by Rodriguez at the kind of tonal whiplash Tarantino regularly pulls off, but it lands with a disquieting thud that makes a throwaway movie a lot less fun.) Many of the action scenes are sodden and
To paraphrase a beloved line from a decade-old record review: Planet Terror is a crummy-looking movie with a concept. And the concept is — crummy-looking movies! The result is a messy blare of blood and babes — satisfying but second-rate.
Five minutes into Death Proof, I felt bad for Rodriguez, because it was clear that a great filmmaker was finally in command. Where Rodriguez took the easy way out with a zombie movie (a foolproof genre but overexposed lately with the success of Land of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, the remade Dawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, all superior films), Tarantino digs into more novel exploitation territory. He casts Kurt Russell (aka Snake Plissken of Escape From New York) as "Stuntman Mike," an aging, sociopathic stunt driver who targets comely young things for "vehicular homicide."
Tarantino's genius comes through as clearly in Death Proof as in anything in his career. He can convince his fanboy devotees that they're watching a badass car-chase movie (which they are), when Death Proof could just as reasonably be described as a movie about women talking.
The director's trademark chatter sparkles instantly, as three young women drive around Austin, Texas, finally settling in at a place called the Texas Chili Parlor. Here, Tarantino luxuriates in dive-bar bonhomie. Conversations range lazily, infectiously, from Robert Frost to big asses. The jukebox pumps out glam rock and obscure soul. Colorful patrons are introduced (including Stuntman Mike, scarfing nachos, and Rose McGowan, pulling double duty as a resentful hippie chick). The rhythm, pacing, wit, and energy of pure filmmaking is palpable. Nothing is happening, and you don't want it to stop.
Tarantino downplays the post-production gimmickry that overruns Planet Terror. His "print" has flaws, but he never allows this to distract from the movie itself. Instead, he gives Death Proof a specific, of-the-era look.
Like other Tarantino movies, Death Proof manages to be intensely personal without being indulgent. It takes place in a fantasy world where a hottie celebrity radio DJ drops a subtle joke about obscure martial-arts movies into casual conversation. And Tarantino's oddball foot fetish runs rampant; a lingering image is that of a bare female foot hanging out a car window, tapping out a British Invasion beat.
As in the Kill Bill movies, Tarantino references his own work as often as he does other movies. One diner conversation among a second group of women evokes the opening of Reservoir Dogs as the camera circles around the table. And Russell's Stuntman Mike is another one of Tarantino's awesome reclamation projects, giving the actor (not exactly out of work these days, but not with roles like this) a bravura conversation set-piece, where the corny old codger gets to drop a John Wayne impression and charm a pretty young thing.
Back at the Chili Parlor, Stuntman Mike is heard telling an uncomprehending twentysomething, "Back in the White Line Fever days, real cars smashed into real cars, with real dumb people driving them." And in the second half of Death Proof, where Mike meets up with a couple of gearhead gals driving the same souped-up, white hot-rod from the oft-referenced Vanishing Point, Tarantino delivers the goods with an extended car-chase, car-crash duel that tops his influences.
Here, the real star of the show isn't Russell or even Tarantino. It's professional stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman in both Kill Bill movies. Tarantino has Bell playing herself — doing the stunts (riding on the hood at maximum speed, like a living hood ornament) and getting the glory. It's a big, public thank-you. She's charming, and so is the movie. The generosity of spirit matches the virtuosity of the filmmaking. Real grindhouses knew nothing like it.