I’ve got a theory about Grindhouse, and it goes like this: At some point during the brainstorming/beer-bonging process by which Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino developed their multimillion-dollar ersatz-exploitation double feature, the boys finished off the super nachos, sparked up a spliff, and said “Dude, let’s just motherfucking bring it.” From whence proceeded a checklist of must-haves: zombie hordes and one-legged go-go dancers, hot rods and hot pants, evil doctors and exploding pustules, trash-talking identical-twin babysitters, castration, decapitation, dismemberment, diminutive Mexican badasses, customized motorcycles, Kurt Russell, Osama bin Laden, Fu Manchu, tasty sausage, jive-ass stuntwomen, outrageous car wrecks, buckets of blood, geysers of gore, mountains of weaponry, explosions bigger than God (Tarantino: “How big?” Rodriguez: “Retarded big”)—and of course titties, lots and lots of titties.
From first rude frame to lascivious last, Grindhouse guns to be the last word in fanboy fetishism. Not only does it monkey around with degenerate genres (splatter films, bad-girl flicks, John Carpenter cheapies, car-chase extravaganzas), it apes the condition of crummy old prints. Convulsed in phony glitches—scratches, scuffs, projector hiccups, soured film stock, missing reels—it’s a digitally enhanced homage to analogue grime that unspools like a Guy Maddin spectacular supercharged to the Weinstein account. There may not be any house left to grind in New York, skuzzy little theaters having gone the way of subway tokens, smoking in bars, and, you know,
fun. But as nostalgia trips go, at least this one goes all the way. You can practically taste the mold and smell the celluloid.
The house that Rodriguez and Tarantino built is constructed on two levels. In
Planet Terror, a deliciously repellent zombie apocalypse (of love), Rodriguez busts his nut in every direction, showering the screen with icky globs of glorious nonsense. The convenient thing about riffing on grindhouse is that it gives you a license to thrill at will; casual plotting, randomly generated protagonists, spectacle for its own sake, and questionable ethics come with the territory. That plays well to Rodriguez’s strengths (sight gags, Grand Guignol) and weaknesses (patience, coherence) as he mounts a hilariously haphazard scenario pitting a clutch of the non-infected (Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Michael Biehn) against the peckish undead (makeup effects by Greg Nicotero).
Where Rodriguez does grindhouse more or less straight up, Tarantino takes greater license with Death Proof—which is to say the tradition he’s elaborating on is the Tarantino Movie. Only tangentially related to the vehicular-mayhem genre (Vanishing Point is name-checked repeatedly), this sneaky contraption is booby-trapped with twisty talk, structural shocks, berserkoid set pieces, and unabashed foot fetishism. Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a genial psychopath with a thing for running down babes in his customized Dodge Charger. His targets include Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Zoë (Uma’s Kill Bill stunt double, Zoë Bell), Abernathy (radiant Rosario Dawson), and the inevitable Tough Black Chick (Tracie Thoms as Kim). Her incurable case of Tarantino-style Tourette’s—”bitch” this, “mothafucka” that, nonstop “nigga pleez“—strikes what may be the only truly gratuitous note in this ostensible exploitation epic.
Given a climate where major studios cash in on the most fucked-up shit imaginable (a remake of
The Last House on the Left is in the works), there’s not much ante for Grindhouse to up. The vibe, in any event, is more convivial than confrontational—the blockbuster as block party. Tarantino is a big supporter of the neo-exploitation crowd (two of whose luminaries, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, contribute ingenious trailers for imaginary films alongside Edgar Wright and Rodriguez), but his own sensibility is sweeter. Death Proof expends most of its energy on boozy barroom camaraderie and baroque restaurant chitchat. Even the villain is rather a dear; Tarantino clearly relishes his rehabilitation of Russell (here giving a charmed, witty performance), on whom he lavishes as much affection as his girls gone wild. And wild they go, pedal to the metal, brandishing iron poles, turning the tables on Stuntman Mike in a giddy automotive assault that climaxes with the finest syncopation since Before Sunset.
So yeah, it’s a gas, from first frame to last —and by the time you exit this slobbering behemoth, you’ll have taken in a quarter-million of them. This monumentally pointless movie is best summarized by a line from Planet Terror: “At some point in your life, you find a use for every useless talent you have.” Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Co. aim for nothing more noble than to freak the funk, and it’s about goddamn time. Go wasted, go stoned, go without your parents’ permission. In paying homage to an obsolete form of movie culture, Grindhouse delivers a dropkick to ours.