When the creators of Sin City (Robert Rodriguez) and Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino) come together, I have to pay attention. The two of them love movies, love movies the way I love movies, in all of their cheesy glory. Often they end up doing pastiches to the type of movie they grew up watching and loving, while adding their particular spin to them. Thus they bring us Grindhouse, something to quench your thirst for exploitation films (though, admittedly, how much of a thirst could there be out there?)

Grindhouse attempts to recreate the Grindhouse movie-going experience, those inner city theaters with strange combinations of grade z movies shown in marathon. These days, we have direct-to-DVD productions, so we don’t have that cinematic experience much anymore. The junk cinema features an old school aesthetic which Grindhouse re-creates with the soundtrack static, the flickers on screen, and missing reels. The movies themselves were filled with cheap thrills, casual violence, pure escape in an anything goes brand of story-telling.

Planet Terror

Robert Rodriguez fulfills the promise of From Dusk til Dawn. A great caper movie that turns into a vampire flick, the movie works better in concept than it did in execution. Planet Terror brims with energy and style over substance (and has a holster fixation: everyone kept shoving things in pockets or drawing them out with a flourish). Rodriguez uses the affectations of the movie to his advantage, for instance, using the missing reel to escape the many corners he had written himself into. The characters even refer back to events in the missing reel.

The plot, such that it is, revolves around an infection that turn people to zombie-like creatures, spreading their disease and reducing them to something less than human. The over-the-top script covers the outrageous characterizations and action that defies all known laws of physics. Cars blow up in more ridiculous than (cinema) usual plus the dismemberment gore gushes blood like erupting red Jell-O. With action for action’s sake, making not a lick of sense, you basically just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Who are you really?” –Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn)

Like the nature of sin itself, the “zombie-fying” infection spreads among the people, soldiers and civilians alike. Because of the introduction of sin, the created order is disrupted, leaving humanity (once infected with sin) not as they are meant to be. While not specifically using zombies, Planet Terror does make use of the imagery (eating and shredding raw flesh). These creatures illustrate a resurrection to walking death, living death, with no hope, only the eternal existence in a “body of death” (Romans 7:24). They are particular reminders that there are worse things than death.

“I need you to become who you were meant to be.” –El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez)

Enter El Ray as a kind of Christ figure: No one understands who his real identity; he is with the survivors for a while; he invests himself in a few, such as Cherry Darling, the stripper—sorry, go-go dancer—who loses a leg and has it replaced with a machine gun; he transforms their way of living; and he gives them a mission and destination, a new earth, (“I find the lost, the weary, those that have no hope, and I lead them” says Cherry).

“Don’t you get it, we’re the antidote.” — (Naveen Andrews, Lost)

This called out group has to stand against the infection and its consequences. “At some point in life you find a use for all of your useless talents,” Dr. Dakota Block remarks. Those seemingly useless talents were put to use in their battles. This ekklesia seeks a sense of community and meaning in life, choosing to use their gifts to impact their world by becoming an alternative society to the ways of this world, a saving presence working toward the redemption of the entire world.

A superb cast, obviously in on the joke, Planet Terror is a modern thriller that somehow feels at equal home in the 70s. The movie is low grade entertainment that achieves a greater sense of fun than the movies it copies.

Death Proof

Death Proof seems like the weaker of the two entries because, on the surface, the story arc falls a little flatter. A serial killer, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, B-movie king from and The Thing and Escape from New York) stalks groups of women and then uses his car to murder them. The dialogue was good, typical Quentin Tarantino, the Brian Michael Bendis (Powers) of movies, but the talking heads felt a bit talky and uneventful at times. It is the only chance you get to breathe from the incessant action, but doesn’t really build a sense of dread typical of a horror movie.

Though the acting is a little shrill, he asks us to invest in these women and their situation. He has made them fully rounded characters, with history and quirks. By flipping the expectations one would have about this kind of movie, Tarantino demonstrates his genius. Two of our heroines leap off the screen. Kim (Tracie Thoms) reveals Tarantino’s love of 70s era blaxploitation heroine, Pam Grier, even moreso than his tribute to her in Jackie Brown. Zoe Bell, playing herself, has been in films before, as a stunt performer, such as her wo
rk as Uma Thurman’s double for Kill Bill.

Death Proof functions as a morality/comeuppance tale by way of female empowerment movie. It’s a straight up thrill ride with less of a story as basically a sadistic bully meets his match in this woman’s revenge movie. Kurt Russell’s unexplained pathology seems both more dangerous in his swagger and yet emasculated. The serial killer is our modern-day boogeyman. In depicting the dark side to our nature, serial killers specifically remind us that evil death is all around us in the form of each other. Evil can be anywhere, danger lies around any bend in the road.

Look, you don’t plunk down money for Carnosaur 2 thinking you’re going to an Oscar contender. You (and the movie itself) just accept it for what it is and go for it. I feared Grindhouse would prove little more than a vanity project. When you set out to make a B-movie—big budget B-movie sounds like an oxymoron—it’s not too hard to max out the outrageousness. Everyone was in on the joke (from Bruce Willis to Nicholas Cage). Even the movie trailers before each movie are part of the experience: Machete (which I actually want to see now), Don’t, Thanksgiving (what the hell is wrong with Eli Roth?), and Werewolf Women of the SS.

Grindhouse was a complete cheese fest, high cheese, not that that is a bad thing. It’s about delivering what you promise. Grindhouse did. Ghost Rider did not. This movie won’t be for the faint of heart, nor will the stylized film-making be easily consumed. Twisted tales with more twisted characters have two master directors working from their palettes of brutality and gore for a purely visceral experience. It’s the best bad movie of the year and if you want a closer feeling of the Grindhouse experience was like, go to the last showing at your multiplex.

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