That Grindhouse fizzled at the box office may have something to do with the reality that most moviegoers don't have the same love for the exploitation films of the '70s and early '80s that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez do. Still, while I am no big fan of either director, I got a visceral kick out of Grindhouse, their "double feature" tribute – complete with intentionally missing reels, scratchy prints, and awkward reel changes.
Rodriguez's film, Planet Terror, kicks off the show, and it's 90 minutes of blarney about some secret military gas that turns people into flesh-eating zombies, and the usual ragtag group of misfits who must do battle against the invading hordes. It feels very much like some 1982 Cannon Pictures film, with stock characters, stupid dialogue, and cheesy music (composed by Rodriguez himself), updated to 2007 with cell phones and lots of CGI (mostly involving actress Rose McGowan's leg being replaced by a massive machine gun).
It feels so authentic, in fact, that, while the shootout scenes are good fun and there are plenty of over-the-top gross-out moments, there's nothing really special about it. Like Rodriguez's other films, it's an exhibit of style over substance, basically forgotten once it's over.
Tarantino's film Death Proof follows a trio of hilariously sleazy trailers for nonexistent B-movies directed by their friends Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright (whose trailer delivers the biggest laugh of the whole event), and not two minutes into it, you realize you're not really watching a note-for-note pastiche of old trashy movies like Rodriguez's piece. You're watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. All of his hallmarks are there: long scenes where hip characters chatter on and on about pop culture, sudden brutal outbursts of violence, a great soundtrack, and a Quentin Tarantino appearance. (He has a small role in Planet Terror, too, which as usual only distracts and disappoints.)
Death Proof, starring Kurt Russell as a psycho killer who uses his car to murder pretty young ladies, has its share of boring moments, but the payoff – involving a car chase that seems to go on for a good half-hour – is tremendous. It's the best car chase since Terminator 2, and it's even cooler than watching Rose McGowan gun down zombies with her leg. But as Tarantino mostly ignores the beat-up look of old grindhouse movies that Rodriguez revels in, I started to wonder if Tarantino even cared whether his film felt like an authentic '70s exploitation flick or not.
Anyway, I had a lot of fun during the three-hour marathon known as Grindhouse, and it is certainly an interesting experiment (and I have to hand it to Tarantino for his efforts to keep making unusually structured and marketed motion pictures), but it's a custom-made valentine to trash film aficionados that will likely put off everybody else. Me, I have fond memories of cheesy old movies, from Blood Feast to The Stuff, so I could get into it.
But for all its sleazy glory, I did notice that Grindhouse is strangely coy about sexuality: in both films, the sex scenes disappear with "reel missing" notices. Does that say more about Tarantino and Rodriguez's own little-boy squeamishness about onscreen sex, or more about today's culture, where you can show people's bodies torn into chunks but you can't show a pair of bare breasts? Either way, those grindhouse days truly are behind us.