There exists some debate about audience familiarity with the term grindhouse and even a certain confusion about the origin of the word itself — whether it refers to the movies that made up a gilded age of exploitation cinema or to the all-night urban theaters in which they were regularly shown. It matters little, though, for so richly evocative is Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse of an earlier generation’s guilty cinematic pleasures that you can practically feel the stick of dried soda under your sneakers and smell the faint aroma of bum emanating from the row behind you.
With their three-hour double-header, Tarantino and Rodriguez are telling us something about what turned them on at the picture show back when the thrills were as cheap as the tickets — and before Hollywood started making steroidal versions of grindhouse movies with A-list stars and nine-figure budgets. Indeed, the greatest failing of Grindhouse is simply that there are no longer any proper grindhouses in which to screen it, though both directors have gone out of their way to guarantee viewers a decidedly un-THX viewing experience. Built into the body of both films are print scratches, missing scenes, bad splices and projection malfunctions — deliberate “mistakes” that serve as a melancholic epitaph not just for the grindhouses but also for the soon-to-be-extinct phenomenon of movies shot and projected on 35-mm film.
The problem with movies made in such a conscious state of nostalgia is that they tend to anesthetize the elemental appeal of the very thing for which they’re nostalgic. But any such fears about Grindhouse are quickly obliterated (along with just about every living thing on screen) by Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a 90-minute jolt of zombie mayhem that suggests the mutant offspring of George Romero’s The Crazies and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The movie begins with dexterous go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) showing her love for a metal pole in a down-market Texas nightclub. Cut to a roadside barbecue joint, where Cherry is reunited with El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), the mysterious drifter with whom she shares an unspoken past. Planet Terror doesn’t have much time for explanations, though, for by this point a flesh-eating chemical weapon is already making its way through the night air, creating a zombie army in its wake and leaving Cherry, Wray and a scrappy band of other uninfected survivors as mankind’s last hope for survival.
The past few years have been salad days for the zombie movie, in no small part because the genre lends itself so well to metaphors for groupthink, class inequality and the loss of civil liberties. Planet Terror isn’t especially sharp in its sociopolitical musings, but it’s carried along by a current of crude energy and gory élan that rarely lets up. A year on from the tedious nihilism of Sin City, Rodriguez renews the playfulness and invention that gave his Spy Kids movies their hook.
You start to wonder how Tarantino can possibly top it, and it’s one of the surprises of Death Proof that he doesn’t even try. Rather, he mellows the mood with a thoroughly unpredictable road movie in which long passages of cheerleader-movie-style girl bonding give way to sudden bouts of vehicular manslaughter and an orgiastic tribute to ass-kicking babes.
Tarantino’s movie follows two groups of female friends as they cross paths with a scar-faced stranger known as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, reconnecting with his inner tough guy). His skull-and-crossbones-decorated Dodge Charger literally knocks the ladies dead — until he meets his match in a daredevil New Zealand stuntwoman (real-life stunt player Zoe Bell) on furlough from a film shoot with her three plucky crewmates and a 1970 Dodge Challenger.
For all its automotive derring-do — and here, Tarantino executes one of the most spectacular old-school car chases ever filmed — the movie’s most violent collision is the one between the real and the reel, an existential terrain that Tarantino prowls every bit as boldly as David Lynch. It might be Tarantino’s most revealing work: a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses yore, as a glittering hunk of trash.