Back at the Toronto Film Festival in 1992, two young up-and-coming filmmakers met for the first time, and one of today’s most successful cinematic partnerships was born. In the 15 years since that fateful meeting, writer-directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have jointly revitalized cinema with a string of hip and edgy classics, such as Pulp Fiction, Desperado, Kill Bill and Sin City. Throughout their solo and collaborative projects, the duo has made clear their passion for filmmaking. Their latest release, Grindhouse, is a perfect example of their continuing efforts to inspire this adulation for cinema in an entirely new generation of moviegoers.
A throwback to the seedy double features of the 1970s and the “grind house” theaters that played them, the film aims to recreate this experience for today’s audiences and succeeds remarkably, resulting in an exhilarating night at the movies. Using this concept to frame Grindhouse, Tarantino and Rodriguez offer audiences a 191-minute event rather than a single film.
First up is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a mercilessly violent zombie flick starring Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer named Cherry Darling who, by the film’s end, must defeat an army of walking corpses with her newly acquired machine-gun leg. The film also stars Freddy Rodriguez as Wray, Cherry’s ex-boyfriend, and a host of cult movie icons such as Tom Savini, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey and Michael Parks. As all hell begins to break loose in this small Texas town, the film’s multiple storylines begin to converge, and the cast comes together to battle the growing hordes of infected zombies.
Although everyone in this impressive ensemble has his or her moment to shine, Marley Shelton manages to give a standout performance as Dakota Block, whose exodus from her crazed husband (Josh Brolin) is interrupted by the zombie onslaught in the hospital where she works. Shelton, who also appeared briefly in the opening scene of Rodriguez’s Sin City, delivers every line with precision, giving her character both vulnerability and strength. Ultimately, Dakota emerges as one of the film’s most memorable characters. Like much of Rodriguez’s previous work, Planet Terror is frenetic, stylish and over-the-top, and his clever writing and brilliant cast make the film a true thrill ride.
Tarantino’s Death Proof, while still in keeping with the spirit of “grindhouse cinema,” takes the opposite approach. Whereas Planet Terror is a non-stop, gore-filled romp through a surreal dystopia, Death Proof takes its time, allowing the audience to connect to the cast of characters before everything gets ugly. Tarantino’s unique writing style is truly the star of the film as he devotes long periods of time to the conversations between the film’s numerous stars, including McGowan, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito and Tracie Thoms.
However, while the girls take up most of the screen time, Kurt Russell steals the show as the crazed Stuntman Mike, a washed-up Hollywood stunt driver with a penchant for stalking and murdering young women with his car. Sporting a sinister skull on its hood, Mike’s stunt vehicle has been reinforced so that its driver is virtually invincible behind the wheel, making the car “death proof.” While the character easily could have become a one-note boogeyman, Russell provides Stuntman Mike with some humanity, making the character all the more fascinating despite his sadistic nature.In contrast to the relentless shock-fest that is Planet Terror, Death Proof may seem sluggish at times. Nevertheless, this is some of Tarantino’s sharpest dialogue in years, and the film features an impressive car chase sequence that more than compensates for its seeming dearth of action. While Russell’s character looms over the entire picture, the true star of Death Proof’s car chases is Zoe Bell, a real-life stuntwoman who actually performs all the feats in the film. Having doubled for Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill, Bell caught Tarantino’s eye, and he gives her plenty of opportunities to prove her mettle here as she dangles across the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger going 200 miles an hour. While its pacing initially dampens the adrenaline built up during Planet Terror, Death Proof, like one of Mike’s stunt cars, quickly gains speed and never stops until its ingenious finale.
In their respective features, Tarantino and Rodriguez go to great lengths to embody the atmosphere of a bygone era in cinema’s past. To replicate the effect of 1970s films of this ilk, the directors intentionally gave their films a grainy appearance, complete with scratches and various other glitches. Mysteriously, each film also claims to have a “missing reel” at a crucial point, as if the footage had been lost on its way to the theater. This hilarious device contributes greatly to the film’s experience and is a clever way to tell each film’s story.
Not only does Grindhouse provide moviegoers with two films for the price of one, but it also features some deliriously twisted trailers for movies that will never exist. Sandwiched between Planet Terror and Death Proof, acclaimed horror directors Eli Roth (Hostel), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, the upcoming remake of Halloween) accurately capture the absurdity and outrageousness of the sleaze-infested genres their trailers are imitating. This tongue-in-cheek impersonation only perpetuates Grindhouse’s goal of reinvigorating this style of filmmaking.
With two outrageously entertaining films and three hours of nonstop thrills, Grindhouse is a genuine crowd pleaser. In a time when most films prove unworthy of viewers’ hard-earned cash, Tarantino and Rodriguez continue to reinvent the medium with their innovative storytelling techniques. Grindhouse is a truly unique experience and is destined to be the year’s most thrilling cinematic experiment.