Anyone out there not know the story behind Quentin Tarantino's & Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse project yet? Where were you, fer Christ's sake—Guantanamo Bay?
In short: the two purveyors of postmodern pop cinema joined forces to bring out a double-feature homage to the fabulous ephemeral low culture and low budget visual assaults screened in the eponymous trash palaces of yesterday. The best of such dives were usually found on the grimier former thoroughfares of any given town or city, like Broadway in downtown LA or pre-Disney 42nd Street in NYC; back then, 2 or 3 bucks got you a sticky seat in a filthy, run-down movie house populated by snoring homeless, perverts, low income minority families, drug dealers or blow jobs in the john, cockroaches in your popcorn as well as an endless cycle of 2 to 4 films.
Most such theaters, like the classic drive-in, have long become history and are an unknown experience for the youth of today, but Tarantino & Rodriguez thought it time to pay their respects to an institution that definitely formed both their visual and narrative filmic vocabulary and brought out their own faux-grindhouse double feature—regrettably, the general masses supposedly didn't get it,* and the project tanked.
Now, on DVD, the two films—Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez's Planet Terror—are available in their original double feature format or separately in independent and extended versions. And it is this extended, 105-minute version of Planet Terror that we be talking about here—so there won't be no talk of how one works against the other, which is better or worse, etc. For all intents, when it comes to the following write-up of Planet Terror, Death Proof doesn't exist...it must have been playing at the Los Angeles or Tower, but I was at the State.
Would it be sacrilegious to say that Planet Terror is better than the real thing? Probably not, but then it also wouldn't be 100% true. Let's just say, it's almost better than the real thing, but then considering that its budget was easily bigger than most producers of the real thing could have ever even dreamed of, that Planet Terror should at least come close to looking like the real thing is the least one should expect. In truth, however, Rodriguez's film is far more tongue in cheek, far more intentionally hip, far more intelligently shocking, far more excessively violent, and with far more extreme but realistic special effects than the average grindhouse film of yesteryear.
Not that this is bad—it isn't at all—but somewhere along the line, as fun as the film is, it becomes less an homage than an exercise in nostalgia: Planet Terror is less an imitation of the real thing than what we wish the real thing had been. Thus, the film comes damn close to being better than the real thing—it is exactly that which one always hoped to see in such theatres, but often did not. For every Fade to Black (1980 / trailer), I Spit on Your Grave (1978 / trailer) or Last House on the Left (1972 / trailer) there was also an All This and World War II (1976), Red Sonja (1985 / trailer), Cannibal Girls (1973 / trailer), Galaxina (1980 / trailer), Viva Knievel! (1977 / trailer), The Rebel Rousers (1970 / trailer) or Paddle to the Sea (1966). (I actually caught the last film as part of a quadruple feature with Vampyres [1974 / trailer)] and two other forgotten films at the Cameo in downtown LA in the early 80s under the misleading title of something like The Journey of Tanya—it was, needless to say, not what I was expecting.)
There is one major flaw to the film noticeable to any former grindhouse regular or fan of the cinematic sleaze of yesteryear: Planet Terror turns pussy when it comes to a central, integral ingredient of the classics of yesterday, be it Black Mama White Mama (1973 / trailer), Forbidden World (1982 / trailer) or Ultra Violet (1992 / trailer)—there ain’t no swinging titties. Perhaps the nudity was lost with the "missing reel", but more likely it is simply a reflection of modern times in the US, both in real life and in reel life: graphic nudity is a no-no, but go ahead and kill everyone as bloodily and violently as you want—and for sure, Planet Terror in no way skimps of the blood, ooze and violence.
Planet Terror sets the mood by opening not only with the long-forgotten but instantly recognizable psychedelic announcement for upcoming attractions as well as the famed "fake trailer" (featuring nudity) for Machete, which has since become a real film (trailer—not half as good as the original fake one) before unreeling the feature film. The (imitation) scratchy, ripped and discolored look of the film promptly makes a viewer of a certain age get a warm fuzzy feeling in their tummy as they remember the sticky seats and popcorn with cockroaches and blowjobs in the john, but before the tears can even begin to swell the film kicks in.
The tale is pure trash, just like it should be: a bio-weapon is released and begins turning people into oozing, brain-eating "zombies", and a variety of mostly non-minority US Americans have to fight for their lives. (OK, at least four main characters are probably Hispanic American, but the rest of the cast is amazingly Caucasian. Where dem comic relief black folks done gone?) The characters and periphery subplots are many and numerous and universally entertaining, and the gore and goo, once it kicks in, easily outdoes any mainstream film of recent history, including Dawn of the Dead (2004 / trailer), Apocalypto (2006 / trailer) and the My Bloody Valentine remake (2009 / trailer). Pustular blisters explode, skin slides, brains are eaten, explosions blow limbs around, testicals get cut off, and the borders of good taste and acceptable bad taste are continually stretched—all the while with a knowing wink of a slashed eye and a bitten-off tongue firmly in the cheek. The kid with the gun and the sliming-off dick (the latter an obvious homage to the famous climactic scene of the great and seemingly now lost underground masterpiece Thundercrack! [1975, info]) are indefinitely wonderful, new high "lows" in "mainstream" cinema, but in that sense they are 100% in line with the true exploitation sensibility of the original, real product. But whereas in the days of, say, David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981 / trailer) the viewer sat through a lot for one or two money shots of gore, in Planet Terror, once Fergie's cleavage (as "Tammy") bites the dust, the film is non-stop money shots. And the missing reel gag is amazingly effective...
And what fan of trash cannot enjoy a film of non-stop gory money shots?
Planet Terror is without a doubt imperative viewing, with or without love pillows.
*I would hazard to guess that it was less that people didn't "get it" than they did simply get so bored by that annoying talkathon Death Proof that they left the cinema early.