With their double-feature project “Grindhouse,” directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez seek to revive a bit of cinematic history, namely the grindhouse: the flea-pit inner-city theaters of the 1970s (think NYC’s old Times Square), with dodgy clientele, that inevitably had a double-feature of cheapo gore/sleaze/martial arts on the bill. Ah, for those halcyon days when you could walk down a trash-strewn sidewalk, dodging winos and junkie streetwalkers as you warily bee-lined toward a marquee that read:


Were those films really as awesomely crap as they look in hindsight? Tarantino and Rodriguez would certainly answer “yes” — though Rodriguez’s opinion is suspect, since he was in grade school in the mid-’70s — but this critic begs to differ. Less so than the films: what was thrilling was the sensation that you were taking the plunge, entering a world of cinema where all bets were off, where “good taste” didn’t apply, and lord knew what sort of mayhem would be served up. Words cannot describe the breathless, nervous anticipation as “Suspiria” flickered onto the screen, or when the first actress disrobed in “Tower of the Screaming Virgins.”

Planet Terror
Director Robert Rodriguez
Run Time 105 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Sept. 22, 2007
Death Proof
Director Quentin Tarantino
Run Time 113 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Sept. 1, 2007

So while Tarantino and Rodriguez labor hard to nail the aesthetic of ’70s-exploitation flicks — right down to mimicking the battered, scratchy prints that played at these seedy theaters — what is harder to re-create is that feeling of terra incognito, of shock and transgression. In this decade, remakes of extreme splatter-horror such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Dawn Of The Dead” play at the multiplexes; sleaze is pumped into our homes over the Internet, 24-7; and Asian exploitation directors such as Takashi Miike or Kim Ki Duk have become, inexplicably, critical darlings.

In discussing grindhouse movies, Rodriguez has neatly described them, saying, “Either the action or the violence or the sex had to be so out-there that it would attract an audience to come. You have to leap to places where the audience is not going to believe what they’re watching.”

This raises the question of whether that is even possible in an era of “torture porn” such as “Hostel” and “Saw,” where even a No. 1 hit such as “300” has more splatter and dismemberment than many classic exploitation flicks.

Take Rodriguez’s contribution to the “Grindhouse” project, “Planet Terror.” This ’70’s-schlock homage is a splatter-heavy zombie flick, which doesn’t feel all that different from the director’s 1996 vampire flick “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

“Planet Terror” follows a go-go dancer named Cherry (Rose McGowan) who’s having a bad day even before a pack of virus-infected zombies chew her leg off. When she is rescued by her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the two join a small band of survivors that includes Sherrif Hague (Michael Biehn) and an anesthesiologist named Dakota (Marley Shelton), whose jealous husband (Josh Brolin) wants her dead. Together they blow away packs of zombies with enough resulting viscera to satisfy even the most jaded “Doom” veterans.

The production values here are way too high to make this seem like a B movie, especially the CG-enhanced explosions and the elaborate zombie makeup of pustulate skin. The plotting is slipshod, but no cheesier than any other Rodriguez film. The film’s biggest B-movie move is to give Cherry a machinegun prothesis to replace her gnawed-off leg, allowing her to throw all sorts of pole-dancer poses while blowing away the bad guys. (And how she does this without ever pulling the trigger is B-movie idiocy at its best.)

From a Freudian perspective, it’s intriguing to see what Rodriguez — who’s always been fascinated with strippers and guns — is revealing. He masculinizes his female object of desire, Cherry, in her skimpy go-go outfit, by equipping her with a classic phallic symbol as her, ahem, “new leg.” One senses sexual confusion in this attempt to merge dualistic fetishes into one object, which also makes one recall that grindhouse theaters were the haunts of choice for pre-op transsexuals on the prowl.

* * * * *

Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is far more successful, a car-action/horror/bad-girl melange that feels like “Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill” as directed by Eric Rohmer with a script by “Crash”-era J.G. Ballard. Too many references for you? Well, not for Tarantino, whose film has quotes from “Convoy,” “Dixie Dynamite,” “Vanishing Point” and “Kill Bill” to name but a few. (Check the logo on one girl’s yellow cheerleader outfit.)

For those expecting another “Kill Bill” here, think again — the tone couldn’t be more different. “Death Proof” starts off at a languid pace, and stays that way for a good long time, as Austin, Texas, radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her home girls, Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd), drive around town, try to score some dope, and go pounding the tequila at a funky bar called the Texas Chili Parlour (an actual Austin bar frequented by female roller-derby stars where Tarantino himself hangs out.)

For a good 30 minutes or so, the film is nothing but girl talk — make that bad girl talk — until Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) pulls up in a menacing-looking black Dodge with a skull and crossbones on the hood.

Tarantino finally kicks in with 5 minutes of terror, before starting the scenario all over again with four different girls in a different town. But this time Stuntman Mike takes on the wrong girls, as stuntwomen Zoe (Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) and her friends Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) decide to fight back.

This leads to a delirious car chase, all the better for using no CGI, that has Zoe Bell hanging onto the hood of a car racing at about 160 kph.

“Death Proof” is a unique film, almost as arthouse as it is grindhouse. Its extreme shifts in tone, from dialogue-driven bad-girl chillin’ to high-speed highway carnage, are extremely effective, lulling you before applying the hammer. (As opposed to “Kill Bill,” which was hammer and more hammer.) The characters here — such as Jungle Julia and Stuntman Mike — are as memorable as any in “Pulp Fiction” (see if you can spot the line from that), and it would be no mistake to note that this is the sexiest movie Tarantino has made by far.

Tarantino himself shot the film, and — foot fetish to the fore — you can almost see the cameraman’s leer. What Tarantino gets absolutely right is the feeling, so common to exploitation films, that we’re in a world much like our own except disturbingly cruder. Authentically ’70s “Death Proof” is not, but it does find once again some terra incognito in which to roam.

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