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Two for One is Cheap at Twice the Price

Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) and Quentin Tarantino's (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction) double paean to the glories of exploitation cinema, is exactly what their fans have come to expect from their previous films: sick, twisted, demented, repulsive fun (and that's meant in the best way possible).

Grindhouse isn't for the weak of knee, the faint of heart, or the easily offended. Grindhouse was made for moviegoers who like their gratuitous T&A with their over-the-top gore, gallons of blood, and sensationalistic action, and who like their genre flicks with enough self-referential nods to other genre flicks with their post-modern irony and cynicism.

In Rodriguez’s segment, Planet Terror, a plague spreads across a small Texas town, turning the infected into rage-filled, pus- and boil covered cannibals. Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a tow-truck driver, becomes embroiled in the efforts to stop the plague from spreading outside the town. Wray has a more immediate concern, saving his ex-girlfriend, Cherry (Rose McGowan), from an attack by infected townspeople.

At the hospital, Wray runs into his sometime nemesis, Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn), and Hague’s two deputies, Tolo (Tom Savini) and Carlos (Carlos Gallardo). The outbreak quickly overwhelms the hospital staff, including husband-and-wife doctors, William (Josh Brolin) and Dakota Block (Marley Shelton). Before long, the survivors are forced to flee and make a spirited stand against the rapidly mutating cannibals. Their only hope? Holding on just long enough until the military shows up and save them.

Planet Terror, isn’t particularly deep or original, but then again, it wasn’t meant to be. By showing off the scratches, dirt, and dust on the film and hisses and pops on the soundtrack, we’re constantly reminded that we’re watching imitation exploitation cinema and not the real thing. Rodriguez borrows heavily from George A. Romero’s undead franchise (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead). With its emphasis on everything that can go wrong with the human body, from disease to dismemberment, Planet Terror, is also kin to David Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks (Videodrome, Scanners), minus Cronenberg’s seriousness.

In terms of story elements and tone, Planet Terror’s closest antecedent is Dan O’Bannon’s horror/comedy, Return of the Living Dead. Planet Terror, ratchets up the hacking, slicing, and dicing of bodies well past horror and straight into black comedy (all in the name of warped, messy fun).

In Tarantino’s segment, Death Proof, a serial killer who uses muscle cars instead of knives, axes, or other sharp instruments to prey on women, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), tracks four young women, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young actress on her first big movie shoot, Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), her makeup artist, Kim (Tracie Thoms), a stunt driver, and Zoe (Zoe Bell), a stuntwoman, to Tennessee. The women have been given a three-day reprieve from filming and decide to take full advantage of it.

They sit or drive around, relax, trade stories, and exchange advice. Zoe, though, wants more than talk, she wants action. Spotting an ad in the local paper for a white 1970 Dodge Challenger in mint condition, the same make and model featured in Vanishing Point, one of Zoe’s favorite flicks, the four women take to the road. Stuntman Mike isn’t far behind.

Death Proof is everything Planet Terror isn’t. It’s not lightweight. It’s not fun (at least not by most definitions of that word). It has few of the over-the-top plot elements or dialogue that makes Planet Terror so easy to sit through and enjoy. Death Proof is also a hell of a lot more frightening than Planet Terror. Outside of the occasional frame, shot, hiccup and a missing film reel, Death Proof plays out as an irony-free, pre-Scream horror flick.

Death Proof starts off as a genre-embracing slasher flick before taking a Hitchcockian detour that will leave moviegoers temporarily numb. It then slips back into a slowly building setup that, once the third act arrives, delivers a terrific payoff that more than makes up for Tarantino’s lengthy dialogue scenes early on (yes, Tarantino cribs from Reservoir Dogs’ diner scene, but even Alfred Hitchcock borrowed stylistic tricks from his earlier films).

Whatever the differences in their directing styles and approaches to exploitation cinema, it’s difficult to deny that Rodriguez and Tarantino are talented filmmakers who seriously love what they do and the once disreputable genres they’ve chosen to work in (in effect making them respectable thanks to their profitability). Now if we can only convince Rodriguez and Tarantino to keep Tarantino-the-wannabe-actor as far away from a set as humanly possible, then a longstanding grievance about Tarantino’s self-indulgence would become all but moot. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars