Grindhouse (2007)

Over the years, due to rising prices, the declining quality of movies and, honestly, lack of time, I have begun to see movies in the theater less and less.  I still enjoy going out for the monthly Cult Classics shows we have in Arizona, as well as seeing the some of the newer movies after being assured that I'm not just flushing my money away.

I think Gindhouse may have been the only movie I saw at a theater in 2007, for a combination of the above reasons and also the fact that I was in extreme pain in my lower right back.  I would love to say seeing this movie was what finally cured me, but it's more truthful to say that I was willing to sit through the whole thing despite of it (it was moving apartments which, somehow, fixed things; I guess whatever got displaced slipped back after hauling my record collection up stairs once again).

I have always liked cult films, so to have Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (as well as a number of other directors doing the fake trailers) do a tribute to '70s and '80s drive-in features was something I was not going to miss - particularly after seeing Eli Roth's Thanksgiving trailer prior to going in.  Happily, it largely fulfilled my expectations.

Grindhouse itself is actually two movies, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, linked by fake trailers by Rodriguez, Roth, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie.  Canadian versions also had the winner of a contest for making fake trailers to be included with the film, Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun, which later got made into a great film of its own with Rutger Hauer.  Effects were added to both to make the film stock look worn, including harsh cuts where the reels would have been repaired and, in both films, entire missing reels.  The experience was supposed to replicated seeing a late night double-feature in the type of cinema where you hope you didn't sit on a stray needle.

Rodriguez's offer is somewhat of a zombie apocalypse film, and supposedly was something he had wanted to do years before and he felt was perfect for the project.  Stripper Cherry (Rose McGowan) is not having a good day, and it gets even less so when she runs into her old boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at a local barbecue joint.  Meanwhile, Doctor Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is having problems with her abusive husband (Josh Brolin), who works at the same hospital and is suspicious that she may still be trying to get back together with her lover Tammy (Fergie), who has in fact arrived back in town.

Outside of town at the local military base a group of mercenaries, led by Muldoon (Bruce Willis) has arrived to get the contents of a special nerve agent from mad scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews).  When things go wrong, Abby releases the agent into the air, and the citizens of Austin begin to change into zombies. Tammy is attacked and killed, while Cherry loses a leg before Wray can save her.  Residents begin coming into the hospital where both Blocks work, as wells as bodies.  While searching for a cure, Dr. Block finds Tammy's body, and confronts Dakota, attempting to kill her.  He is interrupted and she manages to escape from the locked office and attempts to rescue her son.

After bringing in Cherry, Wray is taken into custody by Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn), who doesn't trust him and is not too happy that he has returned to town.  However, as things begin to spiral out of control, the various survivors begin to gather at JT's (Jeff Fahey) barbecue place to plan their escape.  Initially successful, they are apprehended by Muldoon and his team, who apparently need the gas to maintain their human shape.  With the help of Abby, who promises a cure, they plan one more big escape in which Cherry, with a combination machine gun and rocket launcher attached in the place where her right leg used to be, comes into her own.

After a series of trailers, we are introduced to Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.  Arrogant local disc jockey Jungle Julia (Syndey Tamiia Portier) is preparing for a night on the town with her friend Butterfly (Vaness Ferlito), who is in town for the night, and her other good friend Shanna (Jordan Ladd).  Unknown to Butterfly, Julia announced on her show that if the right words were spoken to her friend when buying her a drink, she would give him a lap dance.

Eventually winding up at a bar owned by Warren (Tarantino), the girls hang out, meet with their roller derby friends and meet an older gentleman named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Douglas), who eventually says the line to Butterfly in exchange for the lap dance.  She senses something is off, realizing that she has seen his car following them around earlier in the day.  However, the girls all become more comfortable as the night goes on, particularly loner Pam (Rose McGowan) who eventually accepts a ride home from Mike.

Unfortunately for Pam, Mike has other plans.  His vehicle, as he explains, has been designed to be "death proof," meaning that it is designed so that the driver can do an extreme stunt and come out, if not comfortable, at least in one piece.  However, to get the full benefit, as he explains to Pam, you have to be in the driver seat.  His true aim becomes clear as he takes out Julia and his friends in an extreme example of vehicular homicide - something that, frustratingly for Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), the cops are unable to prove.  He is just glad that Mike will be moving on after he recovers and will no longer be his problem.

Some months later photographer Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), her stuntman friend Kim (Tracie Thorns) and actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) meet up with their friend Zoë Bell, another stunt person who has flown in from New Zealand to visit.  Kim and Lee are working on a film in Lebanon, TN and Zoë plans to have a little fun - specifically involving a 1970 Dodge Charger, as featured in the film Vanishing Point.  She has found one for sale and hatches a plan to take it for a test drive.  Leaving Lee as collateral and reluctantly taking along Abernathy, Zoë and Kim begin playing a game called "ship's mast," where Zoë sits on the hood, holding onto two belts, while Kim drives.

Stuntman Mike, who has been stalking the girls, takes this as an opportunity to do his usual, chasing them and attempting to run them off the road.  They manage to survive the attack and, to Mike's surprise, turn the tables on him.

I have always enjoyed Planet Terror more, simply because the exaggerated regional stereotypes and larger-than-life heroes seem typical of a Robert Rodriguez film.  He isn't specifically trying to ape older films, but is basically presenting a typical movie he would make for fun, and it fits in well with the concept.

The problem with Quentin Tarantino is that when he's brilliant he lives up to his praise but, in some cases, he spends more time trying to remind us of how clever he is rather than just making the movie.  Jackie Brown had that problem, and so does Death Proof.  There is a lot of talking, and very little of it is interesting.  Julia is an unlikable character, so her death doesn't carry a lot of emotional weight.  However, once things get going with the second group of women, we get one of the best car chases in cinema history.

As for the trailers, the most famous one is probably Machete, starring Danny Trejo, which Rodriguez ended up making into a feature length film along with a sequel.  Edgar Wright's Don't may not be as outrageous as the others, but it is the one that catches the flavor of old '70s trailers the best.  Eli Roth's Thanksgiving and Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS were both rumored to be getting the full film treatment as well, but unfortunately never did.  That's sad, because both were better than what the directors were turning out at the time.

Initially, the movies were released separately on DVD, sans all the trailers except Machete.  Happily, the whole thing has since been released so it can be seen as intended.  However, if you are curious, Planet Terror is basically the same movie, while Death Proof gets rid of the aging effects and adds in the full lap dance scene, as well as several others.

Although it didn't exactly attract huge crowds (and some who did go didn't understand it was two movies), the legacy of Grindhouse, for better (more indie horror films, more tendency to use live stunts or practical effects) and worse (Sharknado films) is still being felt.  As I write this, one of the newest shows on SyFy is called Blood Drive, and self-consciously throws many of the elements one expects from b-movies (gratuitous sex, blood, fast cars) together.  Personally, I think way too many of these movies are too self-aware, where some of the best of the older films were when people thought they were making a good movie and it turned out to be trash, or the trash they intended to make ended up having more resonance than they thought it would.  In short, most films in these genres turned out to not live up to their hype, and the ones that did usually were due to a number of fortunate mistakes.  In the end, it's not something that can be purposely duplicated.

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