Viscera auteurs earn the 'Grindhouse'-keeping seal
This lurid, obscenely long homage to the cars, corpses and copulation Z-pictures of the 1970s captures the cheese, the verve and the movie lover's reverence for the medium that was evident in the original "grindhouse" movies, films catering to an unsophisticated audience in an era when mass movie-going was in danger of fading away.
Quentin Tarantino, who provides that final flourish to this double-feature with the climax to his road-wrecking ride, Death Proof, goes for the jugular . . . and the carotid and superior vena cava in his imitation of the lowbrow thrills that made him America's great grindhouse holdout. What he went for here is nothing less than a revival of what it means to be young and itching for that next cheap thrill that only an over-the-top action picture or horror film -- seen in a theater with an audience -- can provide.
Three hours and 11 minutes of movies, "prevues," vintage interstitials (the snack-bar plugs and "our feature presentation" announcements) take you back to what it meant to sit through a "grind," a continuously showing presentation at a seedy downtown theater or drive-in.
Grindhouse pairs Robert Rodriguez's Night of the Living Dead knockoff, Planet Terror, with Tarantino's ode to tough-talking chicks and Dodge Challengers -- Death Proof.
Tarantino's picture has a couple of terrific performances (Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell) and stunning car-stunts. But the Rodriguez movie -- all gore, over-the-top violence and goofy one-liners -- feels like the real grindhouse contender here.
Planet Terror is about a viral agent that turns first troops stationed in the Middle East, then the folks back home, into flesh-eating/flesh-eaten zombies. Rose McGowan is a pole dancer who sees her stand-up comedy career wrecked when she loses a leg to these freaks. Freddy Rodriguez is El Wray, an avenging angel ex-boyfriend/tow-truck driver who wants to save her.
C-actors Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Michael Parks and Josh Brolin chew through the scenery and each other in a bid to save themselves and others. Brolin, as an emergency-room doc faced with a cheating wife (Marley Shelton) and a hospital filled with gaping virus wounds, opts for marital revenge, in between blunt bedside moments with patients.
"We gotta lose the arm, Joe."
McGowan, as "Cherry Darling," ends up replacing a leg with an automatic weapon, which puts her dance skills to good use. But being newly legless doesn't keep her character from adventures in the sack, another staple of the grindhouse.
There must've been a worldwide fake-blood and brain-fluid shortage when Rodriguez filmed this thing. Messy.
Tarantino's film is a sadistic ode to muscle cars and "organic" movie stuntwork that shows just how much is missing every time Nic Cage ducks a digitally created Chrysler. This is real rending steel and burning rubber, as an aged, scarred stuntman (Kurt Russell, hilarious and iconic) takes out his frustrations on women by wrecking them in his vintage muscle car.
As in Kill Bill, Tarantino matches lethal, grizzled male action stars with empowered tough grrrls (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and stunt-woman Zoe Bell) who sputter lots of Tarantino tough-talk -- none of which is printable here.
Tarantino still can't act a lick. The music (Tarantino's soul and classic-rock picks) and cars are dated. The directors ogle and objectify the women, even the empowered ones, in the worst grindhouse tradition. Both features are far too long, with Tarantino's set-up for Death Proof -- tarted-up women talking dirty and drinking in an Austin bar -- right on the edge of interminable.
But the gag "prevues" are a hoot -- with Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Rodriguez's Machete (starring his battle-scarred muse, Danny Trejo) showing enough promise to become real grindhouse sequels.
You go to Grindhouse for the same reasons people went to those original grindhouses -- primal, visceral action and primal, visceral sex (Wait'll you see how that's handled). Nobody ever went for the acting or "the art."
You might not buy into Tarantino's ex-video-store-clerk thesis, scripted into the lines of a couple of characters, that movies from Piranha to Vanishing Point, Black Caesar to White Line Fever were "classics," the "greatest American movies ever." But you'll certainly connect with their appeal. The critical favorites of the '70s may endure, but the high-energy junk playing at the drive-in was anything but a grind.