If the sex-and-violence cinema of the '60s and '70s was at all like "Grindhouse," Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double feature tribute to the era, it's a real bummer to have been born after the fact.
Rodriguez jumpstarts the twinbill with "Planet Terror," a pitch-perfect zombie movie. Many zombie movies fall prey to the 30-Minute Rule, the dreaded convention where nothing cool happens until a half hour into the film when the zombies finally show up and start chomping brains, but "Planet Terror" wastes no time getting gruesome.
Rose McGowan, a heartsick stripper, and Freddy Rodriguez, a wrecker with a mysterious past, get dragged into the action when a rogue lieutenant (Bruce Willis) unleashes a poisonous gas on their Texas town. The disease spreads quickly, mutating the populace into flesh-hungry, sore-covered killers who gain numbers faster than the police can gun them down.
The survivors can themselves up in the best BBQ joint in Texas and must fight their way to freedom, culminating in the outlandish scene from the trailers where McGowan, equipped with a machine gun to replace her missing leg, grenade-hops into battle. Watching her one-woman amputee whirlwind, your heart will become whole.
That scene could summarize the whole movie: ridiculous, grotesque, and awesome all at once, filled with squibby blood in the best Romeroesque tradition, biological nastiness that rivals the puke-inducingest depths of the internet, and a bravado that makes you want to cheer and laugh at once. It's gross and violent and hilarious, something you'd be embarrassed to watch with your mom if she hadn't probably seen worse at the drive-in 30 years ago.
Rodriguez has some fun giving "Planet Terror" a B-movie presentation to match its content, from scratchy film to "missing reels" that skip past the lame parts, like the love story and the exposition of why the sheriff won't let Freddy Rodriguez have a gun. It's funny, but the movie moves so fast I almost wished he had spared 90 seconds to give us a breather. Still, it's hard to complain when you're laughing too hard to talk.
If "Planet Terror" half could have used another reel, Tarantino's "Death Proof" could have used a couple fewer.
After Rodriguez's careering apocalypse, it's jarring to get dropped into a sunny, relaxed car ride full of women talking languidly about drugs and sex, and for however funny Tarantino's characteristic dialogue may be, things don't kick up until a long time later when Kurt Russell shows up at their bar with a scar on his face and a skull on his car and starts hitting on them in a way that would be terribly geeky coming from anyone who didn't look like he just fell off the Jolly Roger intending to forget the last few months of buggery.
That's when things get dark. Russell, a stuntman who has death-proofed his muscle car, uses it as a weapon and then moves on to stalking his next victims, four women on break from various movie shoots.
"Death Proof" gets frustrating when it settles back to repeat the idle conversation of friends, forgetting Russell's tough-guy menace for stuntwoman Zoe Bell's jaunt to borrow a real 1970 Dodge Challenger and tear up some back country road. Met with cleverly worded resistance from friends Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms at every turn, it's a long-winded ride till they actually get that piece of Detroit steel on the blacktop and Bell is able to indulge her thrill-seeking nature.
Bell's 100 mph, CGI-free stuntwork is incredible, and when Russell and his deathcar return, he finds his new victims kick a lot more ass than the ones who came before. Their gearhead battle is up there with any of the car movies Tarantino references (which were about 8,000 more than I can count).
Without the aid of homoerotic hobbits, it's hard for any 3+ hour film session to maintain its momentum, but "Death Proof" suffers as much from its own belabored dialogue as from trying to follow up Rodriguez's cannon-fired feature. However devastatingly emasculating its final act may be, "Death Proof," much like Tarantino's entry in "Four Rooms," almost but doesn't quite make up for its amusing but over-elaborate setup.
Both halves of "Grindhouse" are preceded by endlessly hilarious fake trailers, directed by Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright. It may be easy for a 60-second preview to be funny with a title such as "Werewolf Women of the S.S.," but after the grossly entertaining shlock homage forged by both halves of "Grindhouse," here's hoping they somehow see the light of day as full features.They'd be in good company.
Planet Terror: A
Death Proof: B