There's a moment in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino's half of the exploitation double-header Grindhouse, when one of his leads mentions a guy who made her a mix tape. Not a CD, she clarifies, but a tape, and the other women riding with her swoon as one of them exclaims, "That's so romantic!" Grindhouse is a celebration of the romance of analog - namely, the kind of schlocky B-movie double-feature experience that died with the dawn of video. And while Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have both responded to this meta-moviemaking experiment in drastically different ways that will leave most audience members strongly preferring one over the other, they both deserve a great deal of credit for recreating the terrifically cheap thrills of a bygone era.
After a fake trailer for a Danny Trejo-starring action vehicle called Machete (think Shooter, but awesome), a go-go-dancing Rose McGowan introduces us to the world of Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a zombies-gone-amok picture set in a rural Texas town. A descendant of George A. Romero and John Carpenter's early low-budget efforts, Planet Terror pits a small gang of survivors, led by McGowan's Cherry Darling and her mysterious truck-driving ex, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). The schlock aesthetic frees Rodriguez to make his most entertaining movie since From Dusk Till Dawn, his hyperactive imagination serving up a smorgasbord of explosions, severed limbs and burst pustules without the burden of logic or character development (it's like a more honest Once Upon a Time in Mexico).
Rodriguez even succeeds in recalling the best grindhouse movies' goofy but sincere attempts at social commentary, supplying us with a sneering, inarticulate Lieutenant played by Bruce Willis (another sometime actor does a surprisingly effective job as a rapist) and positioning Osama bin Laden as the 21st-century replacement for Hitler as the go-to real-life boogeyman to lend one's monster movie some gravitas. While Planet Terror's take on grindhouse is mostly superficial (and the obvious digital effects are a slight compromise), it's a great deal of gross-out fun, using genre staples like Tom Savini, Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey to wonderful effect. And when the film arrives at the awesome, already famous sight of McGowan toting a machine gun leg, Rodriguez succeeds in giving us an iconic movie image that perfectly summarizes the transgressive appeal of chicks with guns. Planet Terror is the sort of movie that Avco Embassy might have released in 1981, and I mean that as a tremendous compliment.
While the pleasures of Planet Terror are overt, Death Proof is a subtler and at points confounding take on slasher, car and rape-revenge pictures. This is evident in the way each director approaches the digital touchups designed to make their prints appear old and degraded - Rodriguez fills every frame with scratches and dirt, while Tarantino employs them less, allowing the film to speak for itself. Death Proof's credits play out through a haze of pot smoke, and Tarantino has indeed finally made a stoner movie, languorously paced and amiably unfocused. Basically two extended action sequences bookended by a great deal of chitchat between its mostly female cast, Death Proof follows Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), an ex-stand-in with a few crayons short of a box, as he stalks one group and is then pursued by another group of young women. Tarantino takes a lot of time letting his story unfold, observing a local celebrity (Sydney Poitier - how mean were her parents?) and her friends as they get drunk, flirt with guys and dance to T-Rex. This is mirrored in the film's second half, where stuntwoman Zoe (Zoe Bell, essentially playing herself) and her posse spend their day off from a movie shoot tracking down a 1970 Dodge Challenger (the Vanishing Point car, as Zoe excitedly informs us) to perform an extremely dangerous stunt for kicks. Tarantino is not so much deconstructing as distilling the essence of 70's exploitation, which counted among its charms a tendency towards rambling plots (see Dennis Cozzalio's take on the unexpected sweetness of Revenge of the Cheerleaders); we learn about the characters not through extensive exposition but in asides and brief exchanges, and it's a weirdly subversive surprise to see Tarantino celebrating grindhouse cinema's understated qualities as well as the sex and violence.
This approach is destined to be off-putting to a lot of audience members (a friend I saw the film with eloquently summarized Death Proof as "fucking shit" and "Duel meets Spice World"). But while both films are a great deal of fun, Death Proof is just a great film, period. It's odd and unwieldly, but deliberately so. The hangout scenes not only establish an unusual amount of investment in the characters for a slasher movie, they also serve to create a Hitchcockian air of menace - when Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) notices Mike's ominous muscle car has followed them, she represents every pursued woman with an instinctive awareness of nastiness around the corner since Janet Leigh. A self-described wolf, Mike might have emerged right out of the female protagonists' collective unconscious - virile but unknowable, he's a living representation of the collision of sex and death, and Russell's incomparable talent for dead-eyed nihilism makes Mike an unforgettable villain. When Bell, Rosario Dawson and Tracy Thoms take over in the second half, the film becomes a potent celebration of female strength. But where Planet Terror relies on a machine-gun leg for its impact, Death Proof's leading ladies possess a truly death-proof inner strength - it's a hokey conceit, but Tarantino is smart enough to play it sincerely, remembering that there is an underlying truth in even our trashiest celluloid fantasies. Stick with Death Proof and you'll be rewarded with some jaw-dropping chase sequences, an orgasm of an ending, and a wealth of ideas about the power of genre that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
But while, yes, I definitely prefer Tarantino's film to Rodriguez's, they both honor their ancestors in different ways. And they were nice enough to invite their peers to contribute some memorable trailers that play between the features - Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS (featuring Nicolas Cage in the part he was born to play), Edgar Wright's drily hilarious Eurohorror Don't, and Eli Roth's grisly holiday slasher Thanksgiving (which makes awesome use of the Creepshow score). Add to this a grab bag of appropriately period headers, ads for the taco shack next door, and a few missing reels bound to piss off many an oversexed audience member, and it's clear that this is a labor of love for everyone involved. I'm too young to have experienced the real thing - when I was visiting New York City, a billboard featuring a Times Square marquee advertising a double bill of Night of the Creeps and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with the tagline "THINGS HAVE CHANGED" pissed me off something fierce. Now I can say that I too have been to the Grindhouse, and for that I am most thankful.