“Though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am the evilest motherfucker in the valley”
STORGY’s BASEMENT OF HORRORS continues with a look back at the Grindhouse double bill, ‘PLANET TERROR’ and ‘DEATH PROOF.’ In the first review, Emily Harrison discusses the sleaze, the goofiness, the gore and brains on show for Robert Rodriquez’s zombie terror!
Paying homage to the horror classics is something that big box office cinema lacks. In the modern age of CGI, special effects, and countless numbers of remakes (remaking a film isn’t paying homage, sorry), there isn’t the market nor the audience to warrant such an experimentation. Yet, back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez gave it their best shot.
Originally packaged as a double feature, Planet Terror and Death Proof were released under the title of Grindhouse, (hence the double feature), and could be viewed one after the other, in throwback style to many a double feature classic that used to run across cinemas in the early to mid 1900s. Screening two films for the price of one (bargain), the double feature was brought in as a way of getting the public into the movie theatre and boosting ticket sales at the same time. Of course, like any good thing, it eventually fell into decline, and the chances of catching double feature nowadays is a rare commodity. But, and back to the films, that didn’t stop Quentin and Robert.
In a (cinematic) world, where the success of a movie is run predominantly on the back of its box office boasting, Grindhouse was deemed by many to be a ‘failure’, and despite positive reviews, by the time it reached the UK, the films were screened separately and the whole double attachment was lost. It’s true too (or so I fear), that unless you are a horror buff, or a movie one, it’s probable that you’ve never seen or heard of the films, and it wasn’t until one appeared on Film4 a few years back, that I knew of them too. Yet, despite never regaining its budget at the box office, and losing out on any real commercial success, both films are serious throwbacks that deliver on the type of pulpy, B-roll ridiculousness that many a great horror film used to be.
Still, if you think horror, or google a list of classic horror movies, you’re guaranteed to find flicks along the lines of The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, and more than likely The Shining. Here, however, Tarantino and Rodriguez are less concerned with the high-class Hollywood horrors, and instead focus on the indie flicks that surfaced during the 60s and 70s in low budget grindhouses, where slasher horror and copious amounts of sleaze were played out on screen. Think Night of the Living Dead mixed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, campy horror that’s as oddly comedic as it is filled with gore.
It’s true too that some of the most well-known ‘grindhouse’ movies flit in and around the genre of horror, and this is where we come to Grindhouse itself. So, to get off explaining why it didn’t market well, and the films that resemble them, I’ll get onto the actual films themselves. Up first in the double feature, we have Planet Terror.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Plant Terror is perhaps the meatier ‘horror’ of the two on the double bill. And when one remembers (as you should) that grindhouse horror is all about fleshy, excessive, seductive and often farcical terror, then Rodriguez delivers on every count. If he had a checklist, he’s ticking every box, and whilst at times it feels a bit like a spoof, truly, that all adds to the fun.
Opening on a scratchy, burnt out film roll, switching in and out of focus as ‘Grindhouse’ lumbers across the screen, you get the sense that when Rodriguez wanted to pay homage, he wasn’t skimping out on anything. It looks exactly how you’d expect, decrepit and ramshackle.
From there we hit the opening credits, and names appear as a scantily clad Rose McGowan dances around a pole to a thundering track composed by Rodriguez himself. If you wanted sleaze, you’re going to get it.
Starring alongside McGowan, you have heavyweights Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton and Bruce Willis, as well as Freddy Rodriguez, Rebel Rodriguez and Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese from The Terminator no less). Yet really, it’s the characters they play, and the juicy, fleshy zombie flick that ensues, that cements Planet Terror as a particularly great watch.
A mix of Southern Gothic, zombie horror, and post-apocalyptic biohazard terror, it’s as fun as it is messy, mixing around with varying elements that work, for the most part, and a few that don’t (we’ll come onto that in a bit). Set in rural Texas, where anything can happen (or so it seems), a go-go dancer by the name of Cherry Darling (McGowan) decides to give up that life in favour of a better paid gig. On her walk home, she runs into her ex El on the road (Freddy Rodriguez), but not before being knocked over into a ditch by a bunch of what appears to be military vehicles. Turns out they are on their way to a nearby base, where the bio-hazard gas is living, and where Bruce Willis plays Lt. Muldoon (the jokes write themselves there).
Cut back to the road, and away from the flesh-eating gas, we end up at The Bone Shack. Cherry’s trip into the ditch cut her leg up pretty bad, and she gets a ride from El thanks to her injury. Elsewhere, Dr. William Block (Brolin) and Dr. Dakota Block (Shelton) head to the local hospital for the night shift, where the infected start to come in thick and fast, and where the cops start show up too (Biehn). Within the first twenty minutes, you get the gist that this rag tag gang of characters are probably going to meet up and fight off the zombies (and the bad guys, e.g. Willis), and really, that’s exactly what they do.
Yet the real grit of Planet Terror comes with the signposts and signals that are screened across hundreds of exploitation style horrors. You see them coming every time, but the payoff is still worth it. Hands through car roofs, skin melting off, meat sliced through chainsaws, bloody bodies, zombies lurking in the distance, it’s all the good stuff you’d want from a throwback to such a well watched genre. Even the goofy dialogue delivers on its promise (‘looks like a no brainer’ cut to a shot of a head missing a brain).
More than that though, it’s also the ridiculous add-ons that deliver too. Cherry straps an assault rifle to her leg (which she lost thanks to some zombies, spoiler there), Dakota turns ever increasingly insane, and at one point there is a glass jar of testicles (no joke). The constant crackle and pop of the film reel is a welcome touch too, and whilst I won’t give away the ending, it’s also as absurd as the rest of the film.
Yet, there are a few elements that don’t quite have the same effect. There aren’t many, but, in a scene that adds nothing to the plot, Quentin Tarantino turns up as Rapist#1 with Gregory Kelly backing him as Rapist#2 (as they are known in the credits), and threaten both Cherry and Dakota. It’s not awful, but unwelcome, and could have been skipped out on considering it goes against the grain of the rest of the film.
There too, is the issue of the cast. B-movie horrors are mainly made up of B-movie actors. Here however, there is a distinct swell of talent that out guns any notion of Planet Terror boasting a total B-movie roll call. It’s no bad thing, but doesn’t quite feel as nostalgic when you consider that it’s Bruce Willis playing the bad guy.
Overall though, Plant Terror is a pulpy throwback that hits the mark more often than not. It’s stupidly funny at times, littered with age old gags and copious amounts of comical deaths. True, it’s no jump out of your seat, hide behind the sofa horror, but then again, that’s not really where Rodriguez was aiming. It’s more tongue in cheek, with a heady mix of gore and spoofy comedy (a bit like Shaun of the Dead for those who want a comparison).
Watch at midnight with a beer in hand and a box full of sticky sweets. Don’t scoff them all though, Death Proof is on straight after. It’s a double feature after all.
Review by Emily Harrison
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