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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

The term “Grindhouse” refers to the subgenre of exploitation films that was so utterly ubiquitous in the 60s and 70s. As such, it encompasses a vast array of film types: burlesque, horror films, sexploitation, blaxploitation, biker films, car-chase films, cannibal films, chambara [a kind of samurai] films, kung fu films, Mondo [“shockumentary”] films, Nazisploitation (yes, there is such a thing), Giallo [erotic Italian horror], and women-in-prison films, just to name a small few. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s joint project Grindhouse pays tribute to all of these films in countless minute ways, from the intentionally rough editing to the post-production dust and scratches on the film, to the non-sequitur burlesque numbers, to the throwaway references so obscure that it’s almost shameful to catch them (my god, one scene actually references the 1974 film Killdozer. Shut up, I know I’m a total geek)). To put it simply, Grindhouse is a movie geek wet dream: it is 200 minutes of obscure pop culture references mixed with a liberal helping of tits, ass and blood.

The film is structured as a double feature, with fake “trailers” in between the features. The first installment, Planet Terror, is a zombie apocolypse cum hixploitation adventure featuring Rose McGowan as a one-legged go-go dancer. Picture a drunkenly directed joint project of Roger Corman and Russ Meyer and you’ll have a close approximation. There are lots of partially nude women and flesh-eating zombies (and, at a certain point, partially nude Fergie devoured by a whole gang of flesh-eating zombies. I’ll skip the obvious jokes about her being “Fergilicious”). Planet Terror has pretty much every cliché character and situation you can think of: the pompous foreign scientist (Naveen Andrews), the Sheriff with something to prove, the woman and young son running from her abusive husband, the biker rebel (Freddy Rodriguez) running from his past, the stripper with a heart of gold, etc.. Overall, the film has the effect of a big bowl of sugar cereal: there’s a lot of color and stimulants, and not much substance. There is something a little bit soulless about some of Rodriguez's work. He is very good at parroting a genre, but he rarely steps outside to comment on the genre. Planet Terror feels like it's supposed to be satirical, but you can't really have satire without critique. All in all, however, Rodriguez serves up a lot of laughs and a few genuine scares: it's a good old-fashioned zombie picture with a sense of humor.

I think the previews in between deserve some comments, too, as it is clear that a great deal of thought was put into them. The first installment, Werewolf Women of the SS, is director Rob Zombie’s tribute to the Nazi-themed pornographic horror films that grew prominent in the 70s (e.g. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, Love Camp 7). It features Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu, Udo Kier as Franz Hess, the commandant of Death Camp 13, and Zombie's wife, Sheri Moon Zombie and Sybil Danning as SS officers. The second preview, Don’t, is director Edgar Wright’s parody of cheesy low-budget British horror and Mondo movies. The trailer, like the trailers of British horror films released thirty years ago in the United States, is haphazardly edited together with no audible dialogue from the film (a frequent tactic taken to prevent US audiences from realizing the film wasn’t American). Finally, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is the over-the-top slasher parody in the tradition of Creepshow, April Fool’s Day and Prom Night (in fact, the music in the Thanksgiving trailer is taken from Creepshow). All three trailers are hilarious, with Roth's being both the most absurd and the most true to its source.

The second feature, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is almost too good to be a believable grindhouse film. Death Proof is a traditional slasher film disguised as a car chase film. The structure is that of a typical killer-in-the-woods movie like Friday the 13th. The cars, the dialogue and the way it’s shot, however, are all reminiscent of classic flicks like Duel, The Getaway and, most of all, Richard Sarafian’s 1971 film Vanishing Point. Tarantino doesn’t simply make reference to the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point; he takes it a postmodern step further by having his characters make reference to the Dodge Challenger and seek one out for a test drive. The characters in question are Zoe (played by Zoe Bell, Uma’s stunt double in Kill Bill), Abby, Kim and Lee, four young women who work in the film industry. Kim and Zoe decide they want to play ships and masts with a 1970 Dodge Challenger that they see for sale in the newspaper. Little do they know that they’re being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Stuntman Mike,” (Kurt Russell) who kills women with his “death-proof” stunt car. As incredible as it sounds, Death Proof is completely engrossing and utterly satisfying. I found myself invigorated halfway through it, despite having sat in the theatre for more than two hours by that point. At the conclusion, Tarantino pulls out a surprise ending and mystifies the audience, which might be the most compelling and difficult to capture qualities of the best the Grindhouse subgenre has to offer.


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