The Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double feature "Grindhouse" is a tour-de-force and a must-see for fans of 1980s or 1970s horror. The film brings two 90 minute movies -- one by Robert Rodriguez ("Planet Terror"), the other by Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof") -- together, sandwiching faux film trailers between to recreate the experience of going to a grindhouse theater in New York, perhaps circa 1977 or so.
Hardened horror fans should keep in mind the film does not take itself seriously and the one entry by the directors that truly qualifies as horror -- "Planet Terror" -- is basically a full-force spoof with top-notch special effects and celebrity appearances from the likes of Bruce Willis. Absurdly gruesome, the film's story mirrors that of many an Italian zombie movie, with a much better pace and an excellent, eerie atmosphere that actually transcends the film's self-mockery on a certain level.
Rose McGowan, last seen by horror fans in "Scream" and a number of small genre films, opens the film performing a Russ Meyer-like go go dance. Her character, cherry, is a go-go dancer -- not a stripper, there's a slight difference -- and after a tough night at work she decides it's time to quit. She hitches a ride with an ex-boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez), and, after being attacked by zombies during their drive, ends up in a hospital where a number of others have been attacked by puss-infested, rabid zombies.
Not coincidentally, there's an army base next door where Bruce Willis, in a distracting cameo perhaps intended to comfort mainstream audiences not accustomed to these sorts of movies, is up to no good. The military man has stolen cannisters of zombie-creating chemicals and is apparently holding it to develop some kind of cure or something. Naturally his military unit morphs into a zombie army of sorts.
To add to the camp drama, Two unhappily married doctors, William (Josh Brolin) and Dakota Block (Marley Shelton, looking a lot like Barbara Crampton did in the original "Re-Animator") are engaged in a ludicrous battle over the wife's affair with another woman. The argument turns bloodily violent as the zombie uprising begins. "Terminator" star Michael Bienh plays the town sherriff assisted by deputy Tom Savini.
Studded with minor celebrities, including Tarantino as a would-be rapist who gets a come-uppance "Thing" style, "Planet Terror" looks and feels like a film maybe from the early 1980s, with a John Carpenter-like synth score and early John Carpenter-like lighting. But there are references to the Iraq War throughout. Ultimately, a great, fun movie. McGowan, who loses a leg in the film, becomes a hero with a machine-gun stump. Key word for the film is "fun." But it certainly isn't scary by any stretch of the imagination. Not a true horror film.
It isn't as good as the second film of the bunch.
Following faux trailers for non-existent movies like Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS" and Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving" -- both trailers funny and gory -- we are treated to the main event, Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof," which isn't a horror film, more of ... well, a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's sublimely acted, directed, photographed, with sparkling clever dialogue -- definitely not a real grindhouse movie. But it's plotline could certainly have shown up in one.
The bad guy in the Austin, Texas-based "Death Proof" is "Stuntman Mike" played by Kurt Russell. In between the trademark Tarantino pop culture references from the 1970s, we are slowly introduced to Mike who's flirting with McGowan, back in this film as a new character, in a bar, while another group of women party with Tarantino, in his second cameo in the film. After a cleverly written sequence in the bar that reminds viewers why Tarantino holds a Best Screenplay Oscar, Mike charms McGowan into his car, which he explains is "death proof." He's a misogynist killer and his "death proof" car is his weapon. After killing off one crop of women, he moves onto another group -- this time from a film crew, which gives Tarantino the ability to present more dialogue about movies -- but Russell gets more than he bargained for.
There are chilling and heartfelt moments in Tarantino's film. Not a horror film, a Tarantino movie ultimately. Definitely not the kind of movie that leaves you after you've left the theater.
"Grindhouse" is as much an experience as it is a movie, like going for a ride at Disneyland. Hopefully Rodriguez and Tarantino will make more of these. The last time they made a movie together was the mid-1990s: Tarantino scripted "From Dusk Till Dawn" and Rodriguez directed it. It spawned a direct-to-video franchise that lasted into the late 1990s. Maybe we'll see something similar with "Grindhouse."