A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, R, 189 mins.



Cherry: Rose McGowan / Wray: Freddy Rodriguez / Lt. Muldoon: Bruce Willis / Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn / Abby: Naveen Andrews / Earl: Michael Parks / J.T.: Jeff Fahey / Joe: Nicky Katt / Dr. William Block: Josh Brolin /  Tammy: Stacey Ferguson / The Rapist: Quentin Tarantino


Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez



Stuntman Mike: Kurt Russell / Warren: Quentin Tarantino / Pam: Rose McGowan / Abernathy: Rosario Dawson / Zoe: Zoe Bell / Arlene: Vanessa Ferlitto / Shanna:  Jordan Ladd / Jungle Julia Lucai: Sydney Tamiia Pottier


Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

GRINDHOUSE is a glorious, rambunctious three hour-plus love sonnet to schlock and sleaze.  It falls completely within the realm of love it or leave it variety cinema.  If you dig your films with flesh eating zombies; amputee exotic dancers; red-necked- shotgun shooting sheriffs; smutty, revenge-seeking babes in short skirts; psychotic, babe-hating stuntmen; slimy and boil-laden zombies; attempted rapes; decapitations galore; and wall-to-wall mayhem and gratuitous gore, then GRINDHOUSE is definitely for you.

It’s no wonder that GRINDHOUSE is the brainchild of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, two self-professed fanboys of the exploitation genre of the same name.  “Grindhouse” movies were the type of degenerate, gutter trash films that never made the regular multiplexes.  They were played in lower marquee cinemas of the late 60’s and 70’s that would have no problem playing any type of cheap, low budgeted exploitation flick, whether it be martial arts, horror, sexploitation, blaxploitation,  red neck car chase action films, revenge thrillers…the list could go on and on. 

These films were not avant garde, nor were they independent, art house films; they were trash, but trash that made them so bad that they were, in effect, good and a heck of a lot of fun to sit through.  Laced with nickel 'n dime production values, horrendous acting and wooden dialogue, and a genuine disdain and respect for good taste and decency, these grindhouse efforts were the type of drive-in fodder that some people grew to embrace and cherish.  What some people place in their toilet, others place on a mantel.

And Tarantino and Rodriguez have certainly placed these films that they remember so vividly and fondly on their mantels.  GRINDHOUSE does something rather ingenious with their appreciation of these bad films: It’s not one, but two films (one written and directed by Rodriguez, the other by Tarantino) about 80 minutes each that include – in between them – fake exploitation-inspired film trailers directed by the likes of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie.  If the films were not inspired enough, then the faux trailers are an unmitigated riot (my favourite among them was the riotously funny HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN).  Note to viewers: don’t take bathroom breaks between the films, or you’ll miss out on these gut-wrenchingly drool previews, which are almost worth the price of admission alone.

Both Rodriguez and Tarantino are no strangers whatsoever when it comes to playing the homage game.  Certainly, Tarantino’s last two efforts, KILL BILL: VOLUMES I and II, were direct descendents of the kung fu, chop sockey flicks of the past.  Even Rodriguez’ FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (co-starring Tarantino, who also wrote the screenplay) could be said to have found inspiration in the lurid and grotesquely slimy horror films of thirty years ago.  Yet, they amp up their respect for these types of genre films that much further in GRINDHOUSE.  Their two individual films not only pay respect to the grindhouse efforts of the 60’s and 70’s, but both (albeit much, much more in Rodriguez’s film) try to be as rigidly faithful to the films from an aesthetic standpoint.

In essence, they set out to make really, really good bad movies, all down to the simplistic storylines, the in-your-face ultra-violence and carnage, the intentionally funny and inspired dialogue, and the cardboard cutout characters.  Even more inspired is their choice to make the physical film look as cheap and dated as possible.  Using special effects – and a lot of ingenuity – Rodriguez and Tarantino added age, wear and tear to the look of the film's negative.  New films have not looked in as worse shape as GRINDHOUSE does, and that’s on purpose. 

Don’t be expecting crystal clear, IMAX clarity in terms of picture and multi-channel digital sound.  Both GRINDHOUSE features show their cheapness in the form of shaky projection, bad color timing, horrible continuity errors, buzzes and pops on the soundtrack, scratches and lines in the negative, and – in two of the funniest instances in both films – titles cards reading “REEL MISSING: APOLOGIES FROM THE THEATRE MANAGEMENT” are shown just when we think we are getting a glimpse at the films' more raunchy moments. 

I chuckled during those two moments, and smiled considerably throughout most of GRINDHOUSE.  Its spirit, sense of reckless abandon, and lovingly faithful desire for its filmmakers to be as true to the genre conventions as possible make the film (or…films) a really fun and exuberant three hours of banal, infantile, and ludicrous fun…even if one film is far better for what it does than the other.

After getting a glimpse of one spot-on accurate trailer (for HOBO WITH A GUN, a revenge action film that looks like it would be a pleasure to sit through) we get our first film of the GRINDHOUSE double feature, Rodriquez’s PLANET OF TERROR.  Done in the great tradition of lowbrow, zombie scarefests, Rodriquez does an amazingly realized and competent job of making a truly awful film, and I mean that as a very sincere compliment.  It’s classic zombie fun and done with a very typical genre setup: Take a ragtag group of utter misfits from all walks of life and band them together in a collective effort to save humanity.  Oh, but this one is different – it has a go-go dancer that has her legged gnawed off by a face dripping ghoul and then has her boyfriend attach a makeshift machine gun to the stump.  Trust me…it looks a lot sexier than I have described it.

In a small rural town of Austin, Texas we meet the buxom, brunette bombshell named Cherry Darling (played in a go-for-broke performance by Rose McGowan, a very good sport).  At the beginning of the film she decides to abandon her go-go career and do something else with her life.  She eventually hooks up with an old flame, El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez).  Meanwhile, there are some serious problems around them.  Mysterious government officials, led by Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) have learned that psychotic, man eating zombie have freed themselves and now pray on the  countryside. 

Within no time, infected townspeople seek help from two doctors, William and Dakota Block (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton).  Despite their efforts, they can’t find a cure.  And to make matters worse, their marriage is on the rocks and William wants to kill Dakota for what he thinks is adultery!  Along the way, Wray and Cherry meet up with a bunch of other townspeople, ranging from a tough as nails sheriff (played in a tongue in cheek performance by Michael Biehn) and a wise-cracking, grarly BBQ chef (Jeff Fahey) and they all eventually are forced to combine their efforts to fight off the zombie plague and discover its true origins before they take over the planet. 

When that film concludes we get a series of more fake trailers, which are certainly worth the price of admission.  First, we get MACHETE (directed by Rodriguez), which features an incredibly lethal assassin that uses…yup…machetes, and one priest that has a real zest for shotgun justice "God has mercy," he blurts out, "but I don't!").  Then, we get Rob Zombie’s inanely titled WEREWOLF WOMAN OF THE SS, which is a cross between a Nazi and Girl-Prison flick and has one of the funniest cameos of the year by a very famous Oscar winning actor as Fu Manchu.   Next up we get the incredibly funny DON’T from Edgar Wright with a recurring verbal gag of a chilling voice-over that does not tell you what in the world the film will actually be about.  Finally – and perhaps the sickest of the bunch - is Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING, which is a slasher film set in, you guessed it, everyone’s favourite annual holiday to gobble down on turkey. 

After the trailers we get the second feature, DEATH PROOF, written and directed by Tarantino.  If PLANET TERROR was Rodriguez’s ballad to the zombie films of George A. Romero, then DEATH PROOF surely is a more grounded-to-reality revenge exploitation thriller crossed with a car chase film.  PLANET TERROR is to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as DEATH PROOF is to VANISHING POINT.   To make matters ever more entertaining and jovial, we get Kurt Russell (who played Snake Pliskin in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, a John Carpenter grindhouse sci-fi film with bigger production values) to play a homicidal maniac that likes to kill pretty girls with his “death-proofed” 1969 Dodge Charger. 

Russell (very well cast) plays Stuntman Mike, who gets his first name because he is an actual movie stuntman and gets his other name because his real first name is…well…Mike.  Mike likes to cruise the streets in his dark sports car and frequents low rent bars.  While there, he drinks a lot of non-alcoholic beverages, flirts with the young cliental, and lures them into a ride home, which turns out deadly. 

At one particular watering hole he meets up with a sexy DJ named Julia (Sydney Tamiia Pottier) and her friends Cheryl (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito).  In-between trying to get Arlene to give him a lap dance (which culminates in GRINDHOUSE's second biggest laugh) Mike tries to score with Pam (played by PLANET TERROR’S Rose McGowan, playing much more the victim here).  She eventually secures a ride home with Mike, but she soon finds out that is car is death-proofed, meaning that anyone not sitting in the driver’s side will not survive the crazy ride Mike has in store.

Well, like all revenge-car chase, exploitation flicks, Mike certainly will meet his match later on in DEATH PROOF.  In the film’s final – and vastly more satisfying – half, Mike has a highway confrontation with three other badass mommas, played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, and New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who actually plays herself in the film.  For reasons that sound ludicrous, Bell ends up strapped to the hood of a car that the trio are test-driving when they cross paths with that crazy, schizoid, woman-hating Mike. 

After just barely get out of their freeway confrontation with him alive, the three ladies decide that they won’t let this white-trash turkey off the hook so easily.  Like any other vengeance filled chicks would do, they begin to stalk Mike in an extended car chase sequence that fondly makes us remember other great, memorable car chase moments in films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, BULLITT, and THE ROAD WARRIOR, where there thrills were derived from real-life stunt driving excitement and not so much on computer trickery.  DEATH PROOF abruptly and humoursly ends with a violent climax that will make every woman in the audience get up and cheer.

In terms of accurately and painstakingly replicating the true “grindhouse” sensibilities of past films, then Rodriguez, Tarantino, and their fake-trailer-directing colleagues have done terrific jobs.  The bogus coming attractions themselves – perhaps even more than the two films within the film –do an even better job of encapsulating the grungy allure of old genre films.  If those trailers were trying to be effective satires on existing genre classics, then mission accomplished.  They are so inspired and loony that you pray that GRINDHOUSE 2 will showcase two of them in feature form (my two candidates would be HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and MACHETE).

For pure, over-the-top hilarity, campiness, and gory excess, then PLANET TERROR is the more triumphant of the two films.  At face value, Rodriguez’s film is a straight-laced appropriation of all of those undead films, but the way he effortlessly amps up the silliness and pure zaniness is infectious.  Rodriguez impeccably knows that the right way to pay homage to these types of films is by making PLANET TERROR equally insipid and moronic.  The characters act in broad stereotypes (i.e.: the girls are slutty; the cops are hillbillies; the heroes are square-jawed), the dialogue is atrociously weak, and the action and horrendously violent set pieces are so gory and boisterous that they soon approach cartoonish levels.  Rodriguez plays the tone absolutely correctly: very lightweight and droll.  He simply nails this genre cold.

Surprisingly, the usually astute film auteur and student that is Tarantino fares a bit worse in DEATH PROOF.  For a filmmaker that has pledged his career on his respect, love and knowledge of grindhouse cinema, his DEATH PROOF is only half-successful as a true homage picture.  Tarantino’s past films are laced with his trademark and woefully imitated dialogue that includes all forms of witty banter, pop culture references, and expletive-laced poetry.  In these films they are welcome, but in DEATH PROOF some of the endless diatribes grind the film (and GRINDHOUSE as a whole experience) to a screeching halt. 

Whereas Rodriquez played things appropriately larger-than-life and excessive, Tarantino grounds things a bit too closely to reality.  The first two thirds of his film are oddly paced and is wall-to-wall dialogue.  It takes an awful long, long time for DEATH PROOF to develop some legs towards its absolutely thrilling and amazingly realized car chase sequences.  After sitting through the blood-spattered zombies that McGowan’s machine gun-legged vixen mows down in PLANET TERROR, DEATH PROOF is a bit too serious for its own good at times.

That is not to say that Tarantino is not skilled, nor a good writer, not a smart filmmaker (he is easily the most influential director of his generation).  Yet, in GRINDHOUSE I felt like he cheated in a way and betrayed the very conventions that he was pledging to uphold.  His dialogue sings and is as snappy as ever in DEATH PROOF, but grindhouse films were never meant to be as literate and punchy as what he writes here, nor would they ever have the time to spend too much of their running time on characters talking and talking and talking

Make no mistake about it, the final chase scenes are real hum dingers, the girls are sassy and spunky, the tone is vicarious enough, and Kurt Russell has a field day as Stuntman Mike, but DEATH PROOF is hard to sit through without being fidgety for its more wicked indulgences that occur far too late in the film.  PLANET TERROR was undeniably goofy and fun, not to mention dumb.  DEATH PROOF is – at least for two thirds of it – too smart and well tailored to be considered an, well tailored B-grade romp.  Watching it build up to the final chase I was yearning for bums with shotguns and Nazi monsters that were highlighted in the coming attractions.  And not only that, but Tarantino’s cameos in both films are distracting.  His presence takes you out of both films, albeit momentarily.  His best efforts have always been behind the camera.  As an actor, he's somewhat self-indulgent and teeth-grating.

Even if one of the two films works far better for its goals than the other, there is no denying that GRINDHOUSE – with its two exploitation films sandwiching some incredibly inventive fake, low-grade trailers – is a slyly entertaining three hours.  As a pure filmmaking exercise in showmanship and exploring how to staunchly recreate the low-budgeted and sordid films of the past, then GRINDHOUSE should be required viewing for any aspiring film student.  The double feature within the feature is not representative of Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s finest efforts (not to mention that Rodriquez’s PLANET TERROR is more of a sublimely giddy 80-plus minutes than Tarantino’s too-talky-for-its-own-good DEATH PROOF), but GRINDHOUSE is unbridled, balls-to-the-wall, popcorn-munching escapism.  As an exploration into rampant ultra-violence, seedy and miserable characters, wanton sexism and perversion, and overall gruesome overkill, then the work is a real triumph of style.  It’s a three-hour freak show that only two remarkably talented filmmakers that loved freak shows as kids could ever pull off.

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