Maccewill Yip jumps back to the Rodriguez/Tarantino retro homage to the exploitation films of the yore and finds a newfound appreciation for one-half of the double feature.

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Back in college, I used to hang out with a guy named Jeff, and we were the movie guys. We would discuss film, go out to video stores, buy original movie memorabilia, and of course, watch films. Whereas we both shared interests in similar films, he was definitely more of the exploitation/horror fan than I was. He was the first to show me stuff like the Italian horror directed by the legendary Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, the exploitive films of I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust, and the car chase action of Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. So we were both excited when we heard about the new project by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, obviously he more so. Each little tidbit of news sounded more interesting than the last:

-It’s going to be a double feature!
-It’s going to artificially scratch to look like aged film stock that travelled a lot!
-They’ve released some songs! Damn, they sound right!
-They’re putting in fake trailers! Damn, they look fun!
-Intentional missing reels? How avant-garde!

As excited as we were, we couldn’t make it the first week of Grindhouse release because of schoolwork. However, during that time, we were hearing some of the news about how it was doing, which wasn’t well. One was that people were leaving after the first movie, because they either were oblivious or had forgotten the fact that it was a double feature. Some that were aware didn’t want to sit through three hours of movies (although c’mon, Lord of the Rings). There was already early talk of splitting the films. So after that, Jeff and I rushed in and watched the film and had a blast! We went a second time and snuck some beer inside. On his own, he went a third time.

So yes, we enjoyed Grindhouse. Was it as good as their other films? Not really. It was just a lot of fun. I enjoyed Planet Terror a little more because it seemed to stay truer to the theme, whereas Jeff preferred Death Proof, since he was more of a car guy. However, as time went, it became just another film for me. When the DVDs came out, which they released separately, Jeff picked up a copy of Death Proof, whereas I abstained, explaining that I was waiting until they released both as one set. I never did pick up a copy. So the only thing that I had of the films through the past ten years was the soundtrack to Death Proof that I downloaded, because along with Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki, Tarantino just chooses some of the most amazing collection of music for his movies.

Well, there was also a little bit of nostalgia. Thus, this review, which I will only cover the theatrical release because there is so much already that I didn’t feel like getting into the extended editions as well.

I guess I should start with the fake trailers and other segments surrounding the two films, because they are very much a part of the experience as the movies themselves. There are four of these trailers, a fifth one if you were in Canada. The first trailer, Machete, starts before the first movie begins. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, it has the distinction of being one of two mock trailers to actually become its own, full-fledged movie. Unfortunately, I have yet to watch it, as much as I’ve been meaning to, but seeing as it had decent reviews and a sequel, it’s safe to say it has done alright for itself. The trailer itself pretty much sets the tone for the whole Grindhouse experience. Violence! Gore! Nudity (funnily enough, only in the trailers)! Artificial film scratches! Seeing Danny Trejo kicking ass looks like so much fun that it would be a surprise if it didn’t become its own movie.

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The other three trailers happen right after the first film, starting with Werewolf Women of the S.S. Directed by Rob Zombie, it is a homage to the Nazisploitation series that began with Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. As with all his other films, Zombie puts in his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Also in there are Sybil Danning (a return after a long hiatus during the ’90s), Udo Kier (prolific character actor, who I remember best in the Andy Warhol presented films Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein), and Nicolas Cage as a ridiculously racist but fun turn as Fu Manchu (“This is my Mecca! Hahahahaha!”).

Next we have a commercial for the fictitious Acuña Boys, whose name is based on a gang in one of Tarantino’s favorite film, Rolling Thunder. Their food is also briefly shown in the actual movies.

Then we have the Edgar Wright’s take on the Hammer films, Don’t. Well actually, it’s a very special reference of what happened when their films were advertised here in the U.S. The title would get changed and you don’t hear any of the dialog in the film, all to hide the Britishness of the movie. It would be something I would be interested in seeing it if it were a real movie, but it seems tame compared to the others presented, so it is often forgotten within the collection of the faux trailers in Grindhouse. Being what it is, there are multiple British actors, including Wright’s regulars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, there was one that I saw during the rewatch that was recognizable, but I couldn’t place him and it was bugging me. I soon discovered it was Rafe Spall and felt like an idiot for forgetting he was another one of Wright’s regulars. But it wasn’t until later that it dawned on me that I had recognized him from another show, the Black Mirror holiday special, “White Christmas.” Also a surprise, apparently Will Arnett did the voice-over.

Last, but not least, there is the second most memorable trailer in Grindhouse, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. Now, I got to say that as much as I respect the energy and intensity he puts in his work, I just can’t stand Eli Roth in person. The interviews I’ve seen and read, and his cameos in Tarantino’s films, both this and in Inglourious Basterds, make me want to punch him in the face, even when he does the same to Nazis in the latter film. Having said that, the trailer he came up with is awe-inspiring in its depravity. Multiple-decapitations and sexual situations, one part in which we see both. The voice-over, the scratches, the faded colors, all contribute to making this one the truest to the theme.

Well, that would have been it if you went to one of the majority of screenings. After winning Tarantino’s contest, Jason Eisener fan-made trailer for Hobo with a Shotgun was screened with Grindhouse in Canadian and a few select U.S. theaters. It also has the distinction of being the second trailer to be fleshed out into a full movie, with the lead being taken over by Rutger Hauer. As with Machete, I did not get to see the full version, but unlike the Trejo film, I hadn’t watched it because I was just not a fan of that particular type of man-against-world film, even with Hauer in the lead.

In between all these, there are the parts with colorful swirls and bombastic music that informs audiences of previews and the feature presentation, as well as little bits that would remind people about the R rating. These segments, one which was also shown before Kill Bill, were originally seen in actual grindhouse and drive-in theaters back in the golden age of exploitation cinema.

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And that leads us to the actual Grindhouse films, starting with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. As I mentioned earlier, I originally preferred this film to Tarantino’s because it was closer to the concept of the grindhouse experience. I’ll explain more when we get to the Death Proof part of the review. This film, however, translates Rodriguez’s style to something more reminiscent of true exploitation period, and boy does he try to pack it in. You got the mutant created by military biological weapons, à la George A. Romero’s The Crazies. You’ve got lots of references to zombie flicks like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s Zombi. You get the dangerous doctors similar to Dead and Buried. You get the little lesbianism of Shelton and Fergie’s character that was inherent in a lot of sexploitation films, including Women in Cages, in which a clip can be seen in the film. There’s El-Wray as a working man who is secretly a badass military soldier running away from his past. The lost limb replaced with a weapon, with Cherry Darling and her M-16 leg. The violent women gang in the form of the Crazy Babysitter Twins…

And all that with a heavy coating of gore. My god is this a bloody, nasty film. Being pretty much a zombie/mutant film, I remember it being pretty violent and outrageous in general, so it’s probably why I had forgotten some aspect that would normally be flagrant in some other movies, such as Naveen Andrews character, Abby, and his proclivity of cutting and collecting the testicles off his enemies, so much so that he apparently has two tools for the job. And that wasn’t the only gross thing we saw of the male crotch in the movie. There are pics that the two doctors, played by Josh Brolin and Felix Sabates, look through, full of crotch lesions, growths, and rashes. Hell, there is Tarantino’s soldier character and his melting manhood as he’s attempting to rape Rose McGowan’s character, Cherry Darling. And the women don’t escape it, either, as Fergie, who I had completely forgotten was even in this movie, has her head emptied of her brains.

Some of these effects are done by CGI, such as the John Carpenter’s The Thing-inspired living spillage of guts from Tarantino’s soldier, but most of the others were thanks to the makeup legend Tom Savini, who makes a cameo as Officer Tolo. When I first saw the film, I immediately recognized him, partly because of Dawn of the Dead, but mostly because of a book he wrote. Starting around middle school I was messing with prosthetic makeup during Halloween and checking out books on similar topics. Two books that stuck to mind in particular were Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook, by the man who aged Marlon Brando in The Godfather and created the final face-off effects in Scanners, and the aforementioned book by Savini, Grande Illusion. Savini’s book covers how he had done effects for many movies, including Creepshow, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, and several others. It’s funny that I had read about some of these effects before seeing the films that featured them. So yes, it was fun seeing him and his effects, especially ones he had done to himself.

Now might be a good time to talk about the insane cast that’s in this movie. Some of them are members of Robert Rodriguez’s family. His son, Rebel Rodriguez, plays the little boy Tony and his nieces, Electra and Elise Avellan, plays the Crazy Babysitter Twins. Many were those he had worked with before. Marley Shelton (Dr. Dakota Block) and Bruce Willis (Muldoon) were both in Sin City. Real-life father-son duo Michael and James Park were in the From Dusk Till Dawn series (as with Tom Savini) as well as Kill Bill, both playing the same father and son cops, Earl and Edgar McGraw, throughout all the various films. And, of course, there’s Tarantino, who plays the rapist soldier. Then you got the great actors Michael Biehn (Terminator, Aliens) and Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man) playing brothers who argue about property rent and barbeque recipes. You got Josh Brolin that plays the jealous, vengeful husband and fellow doctor of Dakota Block. And you got the other women. There’s Fergie, who plays the secret lover of Marley Shelton’s Dakota Block. Fergie was a strange choice because you’ve got all these people that were family or had mainly been in the film industry, and then you get the singer for the Black Eyed Peas. Yes, I knew she had acted when she was younger, but it still seems to stick out within the rest of the cast. And you got Rose McGowan.

The lead with the machine gun for a leg, I remember I was excited when I first found out McGowan would be in the film. I remembered liking her in some of the Charmed re-runs that I caught. However, while rewatching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the not-so-secret affair McGowan had with director Robert Rodriguez that eventually broke up his marriage with his wife and producer, Elizabeth Avellan. I would randomly read about upcoming projects they would have afterwards before they broke it off a couple of years later. Next thing I knew, she revealed a misogynistic note attached to an Adam Sandler script and got fired from her agent for being vocal against that and other sexist casting habits. I cheered for her, but unfortunately it caused a backlash against her in a few future projects.

Overall, this was the fun, balls-out half of the Grindhouse experience. It’s the kind of film where you leave your sense of decency and political correctness behind you and go have fun with whoever else is in the audience. That is why one of the DVD special-features of Grindhouse is an audio track of an audience reaction, which I believe was from an Austin, Texas screening.

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Now we get to Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse, Thunder Bolt*, er, I mean Death Proof. I realized that my descriptions of this film earlier made it seemed like I hated it, but that is not true. It’s just that execution-wise, this came out less exploitation film and more of a Tarantino film with aspects of those films conventions. Pretty much how all Tarantino’s films are done. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror just seemed to meld those elements together better to present a closer facsimile of those types of films. The truth is that I just had more fun watching Planet Terror the very first time I watched Grindhouse. However, I started enjoying Death Proof with every subsequent viewing.

For one thing, Death Proof is a more streamlined film. Another car film comes to mind, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, which is often described as a stripped-down narrative. You don’t have as much jammed in this as Rodriguez’s film. You get car races, similar to Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point. Maybe a little hint of the evil living car, like John Carpenter’s Christine and Elliot Silverstein’s The Car. Some girl gang in the mix like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Switchblade Sisters. And add Kurt Russell as the charismatic psycho killer for good measure.

The film has its bloody moments, but they are more interspersed with Tarantino’s infamous use of dialogue. I think this was the initial reason why I didn’t care for this film as much as Planet Terror. Whereas Rodriguez’s film was wall-to-wall action, the dialogue in here slowed the pace in the first viewing. On later viewings, however, I was prepared for it and was able to enjoy the set-up it provided. With the two groups of girls, it helps ground their characters and makes them relatable so that their attacks become more dreadful.

There are the other Tarantino traits in this film. One, of course, is his amazing choice of songs. Before the movie came out, there were two tracks that got released so that people got the tone of the film, at least with Tarantino’s half. They were Smiths’ (not the Morrissey band) cover of the Shirelles song “Baby It’s You” and April March’s English version of “Chick Habit” (there was also a French version). When my friend and I first heard these songs, we immediately thought how perfect they are for the type of film Tarantino is making. It was these songs and others in the soundtrack that made it within regular rotation of my iPod to this day. The other Tarantino trait is his love of women’s feet. If you look at almost any of his films, he almost always focuses on feet in some way or another: Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds, etc. Hell, he was even slobbering all over Salma Hayek feet in a scene of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. But at least with this film, he would show Jungle Julia constantly putting her feet up to foreshadow her loss of that leg when Stuntman Mike crashed into the car she was riding in.

Another thing I noticed in this viewing is how much this film interconnects with the previous one, especially after I read that chronologically, the events of this film preceded the ones in Planet Terror. There is even a small reference to this in Planet Terror, in which there was a short dedication on the radio to Jungle Julia before Fergie turned it off, only to later found out how she dies in Death Proof. Also, you see a lot of the people from Planet Terror in Death Proof, the Crazy Babysitter Twins going to the bar, Dr. Dakota Block and her father/brother cops, Earl and Edgar McGraw, in the hospital after the first car “accident.” Even McGowan and Tarantino come in playing new characters, respectively the first of Russell’s victim, Pam, and a bartender, Warren. Makes me wish that they had integrated more of Death Proof characters the other direction, like maybe having Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike in J.T.’s barbeque joint.

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One thing I noted back the first time I saw Grindhouse was how Planet Terror was more rooted to the older exploitation films, while Death Proof seemed to move to the more modern cinema, which it would then criticize. This seems to be hinted in a few ways. For one thing, the grains and scratches appear less in this film compared to Planet Terror, and as the film progresses, they seem to almost disappear. You hear the words of Stuntman Mike as he longingly recollects the past when he would do a bunch of stunt work, before a lot of it got taken over by CGI. The young people don’t even recognize the names of the shows that he had worked for. In the second car attack, you have the two seventies muscle cars going at each other in the beginning of the chase, before later crashing into the highway, weaving between modern cars. There was even a random roadside movie marquee that they crash through, advertising the then current Scary Movie 4 and Wolf Creek.

So those car chases. Although they are similar, there are distinctive styles that differentiate one chase from the other. The first one is at night, while the second one is in daylight. One has a horror vibe to it, with parts inside the car were shot in a manner I’m pretty sure is an homage to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The second one is more of a big action car chase. The first one is pretty much a predator after his prey. The second one starts that way, but ends up essentially being a battle between an aging stuntman and the new crop of stuntwomen, with the women winning. That might seem like that’s against the theme of past vs. present I mentioned earlier, but that’s not entirely true. Take into account that we have two stuntwomen, Zoe and Kim, who knows their movies and cars. They have inducted a newcomer, Abernathy, into their world. It is that respect they have for the past that they are able to go against and defeat Stuntman Mike. In a way, this theme can be extended to Rodriguez and Tarantino and what they did with Grindhouse. They respect the past and use what they learn to go against the stale, generic work that’s in the present. The character of Abernathy could be the others they brought with them (Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Jason Eisener), or it could be us, the audience.

There is one part in the film that I’m not particularly a fan of. Among the second group of girls, there is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, Lee, who for some reason is wearing this cheerleader outfit throughout the film. I know she is supposed to play an actress who plays a cheerleader, but everybody else in her group is also involved in film and they all wore casual clothing. I don’t even accept the explanation of her innocent naivete. As far as I know, even the deleted scenes have no explanation for it. It seems the only reason is to make that joke to Jasper when Abernathy is trying to convince him to allow the other girls a test drive his Dodge Challenger. Which brings me to the other part of this that I’m not a fan of. I felt bad when Abernathy promised Jasper a good time with Lee so that they can drive his car. Even though the composition of the shot is great, with Kim and Zoe in the far-left background, Abernathy and Jasper negotiating in the foreground, and later Abernathy moving to reveal Lee napping in a chair far behind her in the background. It just felt wrong, especially after they drive away while lightly taunting her. And what would their explanation be after they get back from their joyride, with the state of the damaged Challenger. It was mainly her role in this that made me glad that future roles of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim, The Thing, 10 Cloverfield Lane) had improved past this one.

Overall, it was fun re-watching Grindhouse. It’s interesting that while I still enjoyed Planet Terror, I’m now leaning on Death Proof being my favorite, mainly because I see the sparseness of the film makes it make focused, compared to Rodriguez’s jam-packed work. Will I finally buy a copy of the films? Probably not. As pretentious as it sounds, a feeling I’m starting to feel more and more, most of the films I’m into are now older classics, foreign, or arthouse, and usually my mindless trips are usually through Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax. Sure, there are lots of fun films that I would watch, but Grindhouse is one that I can probably leave behind as I pursue other films. For me, the soundtrack of Death Proof is enough for now.

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Other Thoughts:

-*This was a reference to Tarantino’s own gag of having a new title, Death Proof, take over an old one, Thunder Bolt, which I’m pretty sure is his tribute to Rolling Thunder.

-I have a hard time imagining early audiences leaving not knowing there is a second movie, since Planet Terror ends without end credits and immediately goes to the other faux trailers.

-Too much dramatic irony in Planet Terror. Example, Cherry Darling’s early line, “I need a dramatic change in my life.”

-I’m trying to rack my brains, but I think it was a surprise discovering that Bruce Willis was in this film the first time watching it.

-An homage to Halloween when a soldier climbs from behind a car Naveen Andrews driving in, and later the soldier trying to grab him, just like Michael Myers escape from the hospital.

-Jeff for some reason loved J.T.’s line, “Best barbeque in Texas!” He would repeat it constantly as an in-joke.

-Dr. Dakota Block’s list: Cereal for Tony, crickets for Tony’s pets, Kill Bill.

-So the EMT didn’t think it was strange that Josh Brolin’s character is menacingly holding a needle over his wife?

-I still wince at Shelton’s character falling and breaking wrist in car handle, but laugh at situations with her floppy hand.

-Seeing the Crazy Babysitter Twins reminded me of the second annual Crypticon in Seattle, where they were a couple of the featured guests.

-I don’t understand why J.T. would faint after shooting zombies, and how he would fall in a way where those sausages fall on him to be mistaken for his intestines.

-How can you wear a jacket for so long and not notice a ring-box shaped bulge in the pocket the whole time? The ring itself, maybe, but the whole box?

-When Cherry shoots the ground and flies through the air with her arms extended, I always imagine her saying, “How you like me now!”

-So that year there were two movies that showed zombies mowed down with helicopter rotors, Planet Terror and 28 Weeks Later.

-Favorite lines in Thanksgiving trailer:
“It’s blood.”
“Son of a bitch!”

-The logo for Dimension Pictures in Death Proof seems looks better retro-wise than in Planet Terror.

-When I saw name of the late, great editor Sally Menke in the opening credit, I said, “Hey, Sally!”

-Of course they drive past the Alamo Drafthouse.

-All those movie posters and lobby cards in the background made the movie memorabilia collector in me drool.

-Oy, the old-school texting of pressing the number multiple times until you get the next letter you need to type your message.

-I remember trying Chartreuse after remembering that it was in this film.

-Another part Jeff liked to recite, the part about Stuntman Mike’s book.

-I’ve heard and watched Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, but never heard of the third film mentioned, White Line Fever. Might have to look into that one.

-Cringed at that tire grinding over the face.

-Remembered first time hearing Zoë Bell mentioning Auckland and thinking that she had said Oakland.

-We need to see more of Zoë Bell playing actual characters! It was just so much fun to see her!

-”Whatever with your however!”

-I like how at one point we cutaway to a long shot of the car chase at the distance where we don’t even hear the motors going for the brief moment.

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