Hell on Reels

Grindhouse honors the bad old days with three hours of schlock that rocks.

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) considers who to run over next.
Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) considers who to run over next.
There exists some debate about audience familiarity with the term "grindhouse" and even a certain confusion about the origins of the word itself -- whether it refers to the movies that made up a gilded age of exploitation cinema or to the all-night urban theaters in which they were regularly shown. It matters little, though, for so richly evocative is Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse of an earlier generation's guilty cinematic pleasures that you can practically feel the stick of dried soda under your sneakers and smell the faint aroma of bum emanating from the row behind you.

With their three-hour doubleheader, Tarantino and Rodriguez are telling us something about what turned them on at the picture show back when the thrills were as cheap as the tickets -- and before Hollywood started making steroidal versions of grindhouse movies with A-list stars and nine-figure budgets. Indeed, the greatest failing of Grindhouse is simply that there are no longer any proper grindhouses in which to screen it, though both directors have gone out of their way to guarantee viewers a decidedly THX-uncertified viewing experience. Built into the body of both films are print scratches, missing scenes, bad splices, and projection malfunctions -- deliberate "mistakes" that serve as a melancholic epitaph not just for the grindhouses, but for the soon-to-be-extinct phenomenon of movies shot and projected on 35mm film.

The problem with movies made in such a conscious state of nostalgia is that they tend to anesthetize the elemental appeal of the very thing they're nostalgizing. But any such fears about Grindhouse are quickly obliterated (along with just about every living thing on screen) by Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a 90-minute jolt of zombie mayhem that suggests the mutant offspring of George Romero's The Crazies and John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. The movie begins with a bang -- or maybe it's a bing -- as the dexterous go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) shows her love for a shiny metal pole in a down-market Texas nightclub. Cut to a roadside BBQ joint, where Cherry is unexpectedly reunited with El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the mysterious loner-drifter with whom she shares an unspoken past. Planet Terror doesn't have much time for explanations, though, for by this point a flesh-eating (and re-animating) chemical weapon is already making its way through the night air, creating a zombie army in its wake and leaving Cherry, Wray, and a scrappy band of other uninfected survivors as mankind's last, best hope for survival.

The past few years have turned out to be salad days for the zombie movie, in no small part because the genre lends itself so well to metaphors for groupthink, class inequality, and the loss of civil liberties. And if Planet Terror isn't quite as sharp as others of its sort in its sociopolitical musings, it is nevertheless carried along by a current of crude energy and gory élan that rarely lets up. Not least among its achievements are the transformation of the diminutive Freddy Rodriguez into a socko action-movie hero, the recovery of McGowan from the annals of bad television, and -- one year from the tedious nihilism of Sin City -- a renewal of the playfulness and invention that gave Rodriguez's Spy Kids movies their hook.

Planet Terror gets the audience worked up into such a frenzy, in fact, that you start to wonder how Tarantino can possibly top it, and it's but one of the surprises of Death Proof that he doesn't even try. Rather, he mellows the mood with a thoroughly unpredictable road movie in which long, laconic passages of cheerleader-movie-style girl-bonding give way to sudden bouts of vehicular manslaughter and an orgiastic tribute to tough, kick-ass babes.

Conceived in two distinct, Psycho-like parts separated by what could be considered a "shower scene on wheels," the movie follows two groups of female friends -- one in Austin, the other in rural Tennessee -- as they successively cross paths with a scar-faced stranger known only as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a former movie stuntman who seems intent on turning his life into its own grindhouse movie. His skull-and-crossbones-decorated Dodge Charger literally knocks the ladies dead -- until he meets his match in a daredevil New Zealand stuntwoman (real-life stunt player Zoe Bell), on furlough from a film shoot with her three plucky crewmates and a 1970 Dodge Challenger.

This isn't the first time Tarantino has showcased his affection for muscle cars and muscular women, or loaded up a screenplay with pop-culture references. But Death Proof feels especially personal because its characters are the very performers and craftspeople with whom Tarantino feels a special kinship. For all its automotive derring-do, the movie's most violent collision is the one that occurs between the real and the reel, an existential terrain that Tarantino prowls as boldly as David Lynch did in Inland Empire. It may be the most revealing thing Tarantino's ever done -- a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses of yore, as a glittering hunk of trash.

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