Convinced that they just don't make 'em like they used to, directors (and friends) Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez decided to team up to, as they would put it, do it right once again—or in this case, twice again—for old times' sake.
Rodriguez, who is well-known on both sides of the R-rated divide for the likes of Sin City and the Spy Kids series, presents here a film called Planet Terror in which an infectious toxin turns humans into gore-feasting zombies. Famous (or more precisely, infamous) for Pulp Fiction and his pair of Kill Bill films, Tarantino rounds out what is presented as the Grindhouse double feature with a tale of vehicular vengeance dubbed Death Proof.
Doing it right for this pair involves breakneck mayhem, massacres, suicide, rape, blood, detached body parts and festering sores. It also involves duplicating the look of the scratched, stretched and sometimes completely melted celluloid reels that made the rounds at decidedly disreputable theaters in the 1970s. Both directors take pleasure in pretending that entire reels are missing from their films. And both do everything they can to ape (and amplify) the kind of exploitative sex, drugs and violence that are widely associated with those old films.
Within the context of Planet Terror, those content issues play ping-pong with a storyline about ex-military madmen who loose a biochemical agent on unsuspecting townsfolk in Texas. It creates insta-zombies who set upon the few remaining (immune) humans. Saving the day are Cherry and Wray. She's an exotic dancer who has her leg replaced with a machine gun. He's a tow truck driver who can't miss with a pistol.
Death Proof ogles speed, obsession and weed as it introduces us to Stuntman Mike, who stalks pretty girls and then kills them with his "death-proof" muscle car. He tangles with the wrong gals, though, when he "playfully" tries to nudge Abernathy, Zoe and Kim off the road while they're taking a 1970 Dodge Challenger for a joyride.
The two films are introduced and split up by fake trailers for other grit-'n'-grime-minded movies that involve a murderous man of God (Machete, directed by Rodriguez), Werewolf Women of the S.S. (courtesy of Rob Zombie), schlock shock (Don't, helmed by Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright) and a Thanksgiving daymare delivered by Hostel director Eli Roth.
It could be argued that Cherry and Wray selflessly sacrifice themselves to save the world—or at least Texas. It could even be said that Wray does Cherry a great service when he equips her with a machine gun for a leg. We won't argue that or say that, but ... someone could.
In the Machete "trailer," an outlaw-turned-priest-turned-outlaw rejects a man's plea for his life saying, "God has mercy. I don't!" It's a "spiritual" gag that envelops the rest of Grindhouse.
Clad for most of Planet Terror in a bra and either panties or short skirt, Cherry kicks things off with an exotic go-go dance in which she, among other things, uses a mirror to French kiss herself. And that's about the tamest sexual content to be found. Backstage at the club, not-quite-dressed dancers kiss and make out with each other while others around them go topless. Most of the fake trailers feature women with bare breasts.
A doctor sets out to kill his wife after learning that she's been having a lesbian affair. Two teen babysitters seem to have been playing an erotic round of footsie. Using the f-word as an aphrodisiac, Wray and Cherry begin having sex. (Sounds, motions and glimpses of partially bare breasts, torsos and backsides come to an end when the film "melts" and "skips" to the next reel.)
The f-word isn't the only obscene term used for sexual activity, and the foulness ranges from jokes about the pope to the unique abilities of amputees. In Death Proof, a girl reticent to have sex with her boyfriend is roundly blasted by her friends for stupidly undermining her chances at a relationship. Later, they set up one of their own to be "romanced" (read: raped) by the guy who owns the car they want to take a joyride in. Conversations revolve around pornography, lap dances, sexual situations (including anal and oral sex), rape and masturbation linked to murder.
It's impossible to separate the sexual content from the violent in Grindhouse. Cherry is physically assaulted and forced to dance at gunpoint. A topless cheerleader is impaled on a knife while doing the splits on a trampoline. A man is beheaded while receiving oral sex—an act that continues several long moments after his death. A woman kisses a man while his head is being lopped off. A zombie's infected private parts ooze and drop away from his body as he begins to rape Cherry.
Cherry repays her would-be rapist by stabbing her wooden peg leg through his eye and into his brain. As it does in most circumstances throughout the film, the camera catches every gory detail. Blood and slime gush from the wound, and the wood snaps off and splinters.
Without detailing every violent, pustule-punctuated moment in Grindhouse (an impossible feat, anyway, short of reprinting the entire screenplay), let's just say shock and saw are all that matter onscreen. In the same way that the Kill Bill movies used blood as twisted comedy, so does Planet Terror. Buckets of the stuff (along with various internal organs) fly into the air as zombies ravage the living and the dead. Geysers of it spurt and splash every time somebody gets shot, stabbed, slashed—and even punched. (As one baddie gets pummeled in the chest, blood spews out his back.)
Cherry's leg is bitten off. A police officer's arm suffers the same fate, as does another's finger. A man's head splits open and breaks apart after getting hit by a bullet. Another's body is pulled apart. Half of a corpse's skull is seen after its brains have been eaten. Human testicles are stored in a jar—which breaks. Fresh specimens are forcibly extracted from a fresh victim. A zombie scoops up a fistful of his own rotting flesh and smears it on a doctor to make sure he's infected too.
A young boy shoots himself in the head after his mother gives him a gun he's supposed to use to protect himself from the zombies. "Shoot them in the head ... especially if it's your dad," she tells him. "Just like your video games."
And on and on and on it goes.
[Spoiler Warning] After all of Planet Terror's, well, terror, Death Proof somehow feels restrained. But it's not better. It's just different. It reads like a two-chapter novella written by a death-metal groupie hooked on demolition derbies: In the first Stuntman Mike kills a car full of girls in an instant by racing his reinforced stunt car head on into them. (The scene is seen a half-dozen or more times with each instant replay focusing on a different severed body part.) The second shows Mike getting what he's due at the hands of a second group of girls who ultimately run him off the road, flip his car, haul him out and beat him to death.
Crude or Profane Language
Hundreds of obscenities—and that's just counting the f- and s-words. There are also dozens and dozens of crude, vulgar and obscene references (verbal and visual) to sex and sexual anatomy. God's name is combined with "d--n" at least 20 times. Jesus' is mixed up with the f-word and otherwise abused eight or 10 times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A group of girls spends the first half of Death Proof getting drunk and stoned at a bar. Beer. Mixed drinks. Shots. Joints. Bongs. They do it all before placidly getting into their cars and driving away. The only person who's not wasted at the end of the night is Stuntman Mike, who obviously needs a clear head so that he can kill them all. After he gets shot in the arm, though, he downs half a bottle of whiskey before pouring the rest on his wound. Numerous characters smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Kids (and even grownups who should really know better) have been soaking up the wrong messages about car safety from Hollywood for a long time. But as accustomed as I've become to being bombarded by foolhardy driving stunts while on the job reviewing movies, I don't think I've ever seen a series of stunts quite as crazy—and begging to be copied—as the ones presented in Death Proof. The majority of the feature involves a twentysomething girl clinging to the hood of a car while her friend drives ever faster to give her a thrill. Of course, this is the point at which Stuntman Mike arrives on the scene and begins to "play around" with the girls. He rams their car repeatedly from all angles, tossing everybody inside and outside the car all over the place.
Zoe, the girl playing the life-and-death "ship's mast" game, manages to keep her grip throughout—a decidedly unrealistic and potentially fatal example for anyone inspired to try it themselves.
Elsewhere, at a hospital, we see close-up images of a man's mutilated and boil-covered crotch.
Wanna know what makes Grindhouse tick, er, grind? ''Your mind just goes to the craziest idea to lure people into the theater, and then you write your script around those elements," says co-director Robert Rodriguez. Indeed, Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino told USA Today that they went out of their way to try to "shock even the most jaded fans." "We were disappointed," Rodriguez said, "that we didn't have any trouble [getting an R-rating]."
The ease with which they've flown under the NC-17 radar says more about the state of all movies today, of course, than it does about Grindhouse exhibiting any sort of self-restraint. A necrophilia gag, mutant rape, vaginal impalement and a stripper with a machine-gun prosthetic certainly aren't evidence of moderation by even 2000s standards. Neither are hundreds of obscenities, joyriding on top of a car at high speed, disintegrated and scooped-out skulls and (disfigured and dismembered) private parts in plain view.
Too warped for words? Sorry. But that's exactly the point.
A postscript: What's the difference between the grindhouse flicks of yesteryear and the Grindhouse double-feature of today? I've never been to a grindhouse nor seen any of the films once shown there—so I won't and can't compare them side by side. But I can and will say that those films were shown on the wrong side of the tracks in "seedy, sticky" locales that, according to Tarantino, "attracted sleepy bums and outlaws on the lam." This one is playing at the mall. That alone says a lot about where we've been, where we are, and where the big screen is taking us in the future.