Grindhouse (2007)
By: Stuart Giesel on June 12, 2013 | Comments
Vivendi Entertainment | Region Free | 2.35:1, 1080p | English DD 5.1 | 191 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Kurt Russell, Josh Brolin, Rosario Dawson, Marley Shelton, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA
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Grindhouse is essentially this: Tarantino + Rodriguez + mimicking grindhouse-style films from the 70's + fake ads. So, what's the verdict? Sleazy, blood-soaked success or ambitious but misguided failure? Actually, it's a little of both.

In a bid to recreate the lurid shlock of yesteryear, Quentin Tarantino has created the more stylistically accurate yet disappointing effort, whereas Robert Rodriguez has given us more of a homage to Z-grade zombie movies rather than something in the stalk/terrorise/kill vein of something like the original Last House on the Left or the racially-charged sleaze of Fight for your Life. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is by far the more entertaining effort compared with Tarantino's underwhelming Death Proof. With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see why this gleefully deranged and gory double-bill, complete with fake trailers, flopped at the box office. At three hours it's just too much for one sitting. But in the comfort of home where you can pause to grab another beer, Grindhouse comes into its own.

Looking back, it might have been wiser for the two features to have been pruned down to the sixty-minute mark. The stories would have been far leaner and more impactful. But in this double-bill form, Tarantino and Rodriguez have given us two ninety-minute movies (cut down from their full running lengths of 105 minutes for Planet Terror and a mind-numbing 113 minutes for Death Proof). People's tastes will vary, but I believe the films work better in their shorter versions as presented on this Blu-Ray release. True, it would have been nice for distributor Vivendi to provide both versions of both films, but then they'd lose out on all the money we're forced to spend on the separate editions.

Anyway, on to the films. For the benefit of this release, I'll score Grindhouse as its own individual beast, taking into account the relative merits of both films and the fake trailer-goodness. The first film, Rodriguez's Planet Terror, is a sort-of homage to Z-grade zombie movies - less Night of the Living Dead and more Hell of the Living Dead. An experimental gas is set loose at a Texan military base, infecting most within the region. A band of survivors wind up battling the increasing horde of infected (don't think zombies - think really, really sick people with oozing, pustulous wounds). The survivors include stripper Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), her ex by the name of Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), local diner owner and BBQ sauce enthusiast J.T. (Jeff Fahey) and anaesthesiologist Dakota (Marley Shelton) who is trying to keep her distance from her violent and increasingly deranged husband William (Josh Brolin) whilst keeping her son (played by Robert Rodriguez's real life son, Rebel) safe. As the sheriff (Michael Biehn) struggles to keep control, this motley crew of survivors discover the source of the contagion and try to make a new life for themselves amidst the chaos.

The aforementioned synopsis fails to mention a bunch of other characters played by genre faves such as Bruce Willis, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and even Quentin Tarantino himself. In truth, there's a whole lot going on in Planet Terror and there are way too many characters for a film of this type, even taking into account that you have to keep a few supporting players on hand to kill them off. But its sheer exuberance drives the film towards its satisfying, if cliched, ending. Rodriguez keeps the pace going along at breakneck speed. So even though this doesn't really feel like a grindhouse film - it's too slick, and there's too much obvious CGI for that - it's a wholly entertaining effort, stuffed full of icky gore and silliness. In an effort to "grunge-up" his film, Rodriguez has added layer upon layer of fake film scratches, artefacts and wear-n'-tear. It's a nice touch, initially at least, but wears thin after a while. However what it does do is make the violence and gore feel nastier and grimier, and to be honest the film is better for it.

McGowan is an affable lead, attractive and competent, and knows how to play the ridiculous proceedings straight yet still injecting a sense of fun and humour when it's needed. Rodriguez (Freddy, that is, not Robert or his son) is another story - he's charisma-free and an entirely blah character. He's meant to be a badass, but even when he's jumping around and burying his knives into the sickos it's hard to take him seriously as an action hero. Brolin's unhinged doctor is probably the main highlight other than McGowan (and Tarantino, in a really nasty role, even though his acting is still questionable at best).

So Planet Terror is chock full of exploding zombies (sorry - sickos), cheesy dialogue and nicely staged action sequences. It's like a grungy version of the latter half of From Dusk Till Dawn, really, so you know where you stand based on that comparison alone.

Unfortunately, where Planet Terror is entertaining and goofy, Tarantino's Death Proof is mostly ponderous and miscalculated. The movie charts the homicidal exploits of ex-movie stuntman and car enthusiast Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who dedicates his post-movie career to dispatching groups of young girls with his 1970 Chevy Nova that's been done up to make it "death proof" -- at least, for the driver, that is. The film is divided into two halves, featuring two very disparate groups of girls. The first group is headed by outgoing radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier -- no, not that one) who is stalked by Mike and eventually killed off in a brilliantly-staged, yet all-too-short, sequence. Then we're introduced to a second group of girls, including Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing...stuntwoman Zoe Bell. Stuntman Mike thinks he's got these women where he wants them, but doesn't count on these particular girls' ability to fight back.

Death Proof should have been great. Tarantino-isms abound: sudden, shocking acts of violence, long (sometimes veeeery long) dialogue-heavy scenes, shots of bare feet, a narrative that doesn't quite go the way you're expecting, long takes, the presence of Michael Parks. Yet it doesn't work the way it should. Kurt Russell makes the most of a surprisingly thin role. His presence is always appreciated, particularly when it takes the focus away from the girls, all of whom inspire little to no interest in the proceedings. Yes, his character is meant to be a little mysterious, a little cloaked. But when you have precious little else to rejoice in, character-wise, you usually turn to the villain when the so-called "heroes" are so dull and paper-thin. Stuntman Mike is the film's standout character, no mistake, but compared with other Tarantino favourites like King Schultz, Jules Winnfield, Hans Landa, Bill or Ordell Robbie, Mike falls well short, and Death Proof desperately needed a villain in Hans Landa's league to anchor the film.

Characters aside, ultimately - and unfortunately - much of Death Proof comes across as tiresome rather than thrilling. Endless dialogue about this girl meeting this guy and making a particular drink and giving a code phrase because of something about a radio show and blah blah blah whatever. If Tarantino's aim was to mimic the often endless drudgery of ultra-low-budget shlockers - you know, like those slasher films with seventy minutes full of static shots and padding that you have to sit through just to get to the juicy bits - then mission accomplished. If the aim was to create a set of dull, annoying characters so that we empathise with Stuntman Mike, then that too is mission accomplished. However, if Death Proof was created as an interesting, compelling throwback to the stalker/slasher films of old, then it has missed the mark considerably.

Yet when Death Proof works, it really clicks. Unfortunately this content makes up approximately 20% of the film. Zoe Bell is fantastic when she's required to perform stuntwork; unfortunately she's no actress, and her squinty delivery wears out its welcome almost immediately. Yet when she's riding the hood of that white Chevy Nova, it's supremely thrilling stuff, made extra tense because there's no CGI trickery involved - Tarantino, to his credit, was adamant about creating everything in-camera. There are some expertly-staged moments such as the first car crash, but it's all over much too soon and we're on to the next interminable, snail-paced dialogue scene. Whereas in other Tarantino films like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained or especially Pulp Fiction, dialogue-heavy scenes were a thing of beauty, something to be anticipated and not dreaded, here they chime the bell of death as far as on-screen interest goes. It's one thing to have actors like Christoph Waltz or Samuel L Jackson recite long, long monologues - they're able to make Tarantino's words spark. But let's just say that Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito and the other girls aren't anywhere in Waltz or Jackson's league.

It's a real shame. Whenever Tarantino has tried to recreate his favourite genres with his own brand of humour, violence and cinematic zest, he's created brilliance, be it pulp crime films, westerns, war films or odes to samurai and kung-fu movies. For some reason the magic just isn't here this time with Death Proof.

Sandwiched in-between (and prior to) Planet Terror and Death Proof are a set of fantastic fake trailers that mostly exceed the quality of the two feature films. Apparently this was brought about due to Tarantino's habit of screening a double-bill for Robert Rodriguez; Tarantino would splice in old trailers complete with scratchy cinema advertisements to create a complete experience. In this respect, Grindhouse absolutely succeeds, for the fake trailers are terrific. Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which precedes Planet Terror, will probably be known to most by now, given that it was made into a feature-length film with Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba and Robert De Niro a few years after Grindhouse made its debut. But there are other terrific trailers featured here. There's Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, a pitch-perfect recreation of the typical "holiday-themed slasher film" in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, complete with gratuitous nudity and a grave-sounding narrator. Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS is basically Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS mixed with lycanthropes (the short version of this trailer is good - the extended version is a chore). And, best of all, Edgar Wright's Don't, a play on the "Don't"-themed movies blended with Hammer-style UK horror. You wish someone would give Wright a bucketload of money to make this one.

To be honest, looking at Grindhouse as a whole, I'm not convinced that Death Proof should have followed Planet Terror. Planet Terror's eye-popping gloopy gore, exuberance and deliriousness far outshines anything in Death Proof, which is by far the more restrained pic of the two, and this ends up being a massive detriment to the experience as a whole. Whilst Death Proof ends on a high with its amazing car chase, it still feels like a letdown compared with what's come before it in the cheesy form of Planet Terror.

You get what Rodriguez and Tarantino were going for. Provide two shlocky, thrilling, gory treats combined with some lurid trailers just like we were at some dingy drive-in in the late-70's to early-80's. And to a point, Grindhouse succeeds. It's certainly created some interest in the reincarnation of that "grindhouse" feel, what with films like the brilliant Hobo with a Shotgun, Father's Day and the less-brilliant Dear God No! tempting audiences with their shocking, sensationalist material. Grindhouse might have ended up being more of an ambitious disappointment than outright success, but its ambition still shines through and, to be honest, it at least tried something different compared with the umpteen CGI-stuffed blockbusters, animated films and teen-angst book-to-film conversions that are presently infecting our screens. I still can't warm to Death Proof, even after three viewings, but to paraphrase what Tarantino says, if this is ends up being the worst film in his filmography then that's not too shabby an effort. And taken as a whole, Grindhouse is still a unique and entertaining experience.
The Disc
Picture and sound quality is excellent - particularly the heavy, meaty sound effects - although it has to be said that Planet Terror's faux-grindhouse look (all fake scratches, jumps, artefacts) gets tiresome after a while, and there's unfortunately no option to view the movie in its pristine, pre-post processing form. I assume the transfer is almost precisely how it must have looked to see Grindhouse on the big screen (not that we Aussies got many chances to see the full-blown thing, only Death Proof was given a wide release), because it's hard to judge the video quality on a film that's been so heavily messed around with. Death Proof looks terrific, anyhow - say what you will about the quality of the movie itself, but it looks a treat, the action is wonderfully staged and it never suffers from a case of "shaky cam". The action is clear, the picture is pristine and vivid. Sound is punchy and impactful but never overblown.

Vivendi's Grindhouse Blu-Ray release is stuffed full of special features, the majority being on the second disc. On the first disc, which houses the feature film, the majority of features are commentaries. Planet Terror gets a feature-length commentary by Robert Rodriguez - he not only goes into significant detail about the making of his side of Grindhouse, but also how the joint project came about. Strongly recommended for fans. You can also watch Planet Terror with an audience reaction track - it's a little gimmicky, but fun to hear the uproarious crowd reactions whenever certain players appear onscreen (i.e. Trejo, Willis, Tarantino). I assume the reason an audience reaction track for Death Proof wasn't included was that there would only be deathly silence. The Thanksgiving trailer also gets a commentary by director Eli Roth and co-writer/actor Jeff Rendell.

Disc 2 is where the action is really at. The disc is divided into Planet Terror extras, Death Proof extras, and all-new Grindhouse bonus features. Robert Rodriguez's 10-Minute Film School is a quick look at some of the behind-the-scenes techniques of Planet Terror including Rose McGowan's machine-gun leg and the "old footage" effect. Some really informative and entertaining stuff here. Two features, The Badass Babes of Planet Terror and The Guys of Planet Terror, cover the film's major characters and feature interviews with Rodriguez (both Robert and Freddie), McGowan, Shelton, Biehn, Fahey, Tarantino and Brolin amongst others. Casting Rebel is a featurette on Rodriguez's son Rebel; not the most interesting feature on the disc, to say the least. Sickos, Bullets and Explosions: The Stunts of Planet Terror provides by-the-numbers coverage of Planet Terror's stunts, fights and pyrotechnics. The Friend, The Doctor and the Real Estate Agent is about three friends/associates of Rodriguez who got roles in Planet Terror - not especially interesting. Rounding out the Planet Terror-specific features is a poster gallery.

Death Proof's features include Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof. This is a solid look at the fantastic car stunts from Death Proof, and provides some good anecdotes and behind-the-scenes footage. Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke sees Tarantino discuss the now sadly-departed editor's work on his films and feature the now obligatory "Hi Sally" takes to camera from the cast. The Guys of Death Proof covers the male players of the film other than Stuntman Mike -- seriously? Who remembers any male cast members from Death Proof other than Stuntman Mike? Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike is a better featurette, discussing the evolution of the character and Russell's interpretation of the villain. Finding Quentin's Gals is the female-centric version of The Guys of Death Proof, obviously. The Uncut Version of "Baby, It's You" has Mary Elizabeth Winstead sing the song in an extended scene I don't remember from Death Proof - presumably it was featured in the longer cut. Introducing Zoe Bell is a look at Bell's acting and (much more impressive) stuntwork on Death Proof, including snippets from the documentary Double Dare. Fittingly, a trailer for Double Dare is the next feature on the disc. The Death Proof poster gallery is last.

Finally we get near the end of the features with the new Grindhouse-specific collection. Robert Rodriguez's 10-Minute Cooking School gives us the recipe for his Texas BBQ and some good tips for cooking superior ribs. The Makeup Effects of Planet Terror is a terrific look at the creature and gore effects of Planet Terror, with input by makeup legend Gregory Nicotero and some juicy behind-the-scenes prosthetic stuff. The Hot Rods of Death Proof looks at the cars featured in Death Proof, Quentin's love for films like Vanishing Point and the importance of being "in the chase" like with films such as Mad Max. From Texas to Tennessee: The Production Design of Death Proof briefly covers the set locations and design of Death Proof. Then there are features on the fake trailers: an extended cut of Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS, complete with commentary by Zombie and its own making of featurette, an extended cut of Edgar Wright's Don't with optional commentary, a Don't Storyboard/Trailer Comparison with optional Wright commentary, the making of the Don't trailer (amusing), Don't Storyboards Still Gallery and Poster, and the Making of the Thanksgiving trailer. Jesus wept, that's a lot of features.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Grindhouse is an admirable attempt at evoking a time when films felt truly dangerous, heading into otherwise untold and forbidden waters. Unfortunately the results are mixed. Planet Terror is entertaining yet doesn't bring the true "grindhouse feel", and Death Proof's 85% agonising talk and 15% brilliance makes it severely unbalanced, even if it more successfully evokes the grimy feel that Tarantino and Rodriguez were going for. At home, the grindhouse experience works well enough, bolstered by some fantastic fake trailers. A worthy, if not entirely successful, cinematic experiment.
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