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Friday, January 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2007)

13. Grindhouse
Segment: "Planet Terror"

I maintain that “Grindhouse” is one of my favorite ideas for a movie ever. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, two guys who have spent large portions of their careers paying homage to exploitation cinema, got together to make a souped-up double feature in the seventies drive-in/grindhouse tradition. That idea, of making a grindhouse double feature that was actually as cool as its poster, was one the two finished movies couldn't quite live up to. But as one, three hour long cinematic experience, “Grindhouse” sure was a blast. Rodriguez' half, “Planet Terror,” actually predates the “Grindhouse” idea. The director originally conceived of the idea while filming “The Faculty,” correctly assuming zombie movies were headed for a revival. Tarantino's crazy double feature idea was the impetus Rodriguez needed to finally complete this concept.

Some bad shit is about to go down deep in the heart of Texas. An exchange between a deranged biochemist and a group of mysterious soldiers goes horribly wrong. The result is that a deadly air-born gas is released. The exposed turn into bile-spewing zombies, who tear apart everyone they encounter. This occurrence slowly draws together a group of divergent folks. Such as Cherry, a go-go dancer who wants a change in her life, and El Rey, her mysterious ex-boyfriend. Soon, they partner up with the local sheriff, his barbecue cooking brother, a nurse fleeing her abusive husband, and a bunch of other survivors. They attempt to get to the bottom of the outbreak and make it through the night.

At the time, there was much talk about how “Grindhouse” replicated actual grindhouse movies. “Planet Terror” took great pains to duplicate the look and feel of a vintage exploitation flick. Tons of artificial grain was added to the film. Scratches,  distortions, blips and waves decorate the film. The movie certainly looks like a poorly cared for film reel, if you ignore all the digital effects. There's other in-jokes to B-movies of yore. Like the film's biggest star, Bruce Willis, intentionally being shot as if all his scenes were filmed in one day. And, of course, the movie is loaded with outrageous violence and sexiness.

You'll notice I said “sexiness,” not actual sex and nudity. Once again, we have Robert Rodriguez movie featuring a stripper that doesn't strip, lots of titillation but little the way in actual exploitation. This is a good example of how “Planet Terror” sometimes feels more like a parody of exploitation cinema than an honest recreation. Much of its humor is too ironic, overdone in its intentional outrageousness. There are many ways, some of them baffling, that “Planet Terror” deviates from the grindhouse playbook. In a very strange move, “Planet Terror” is set in the modern day. Characters have then-modern cell phones they text each other with. Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror are part of the plot. Why would you do this in a film intended to recall seventies cinema?

Robert Rodriguez' films, no matter how entertaining they may be, can rarely be commended for their writing. In some ways, I'm tempted to say “Planet Terror” is his best written film. As if taking cues from fellow “Grindhouse” participant, Edgar Wright, the director peppers the movie with little story set-ups that pay off later. The loss of Cherry's leg is foreshadowed far in advice. Her long list of so-called useless talents prove very useful later on. However, “Planet Terror” also has some serious writing flaws. Sometimes, it feels like three unrelated movies hastily stitched together. Before the various plot threads converge half-way through, the stories about Cherry and El Wray, Dr. Block and her abusive husband, and the rogue military team feel totally disconnected. While the presentation might make you think “Planet Terror” is a simple exploitation flick, its story is a bit overstuffed and bordering convoluted.

Rodriguez might've conceived of “Planet Terror” in hopes of reviving the zombie genre but, instead, he puts his own spin on things. These are not quite traditional Romero undead. First off, they are technically alive. They tear people apart but don't do much gut-muching. While homicidal, the infected seem to maintain some of their personality. More than anything else, Rodriguez uses the zombie premise as a way to indulge his occasionally seen love of body horror. The infected are covered in postulating sores. Their bodies frequently morph into piles of pulsating tumors. They spread their infection by tossing blood and pus on normal people. It is admittedly a pretty cool riff on the well-worn zombie concept, with KNB providing plenty of cool, gooey effects.

As much as “Planet Terror” wants to be a horror movie, the only attempts at scares it makes are through its gnarly special effects and the occasional jump-scare. Instead, “Planet Terror” mostly functions as an over-the-top action movie. There's lots of creative bloodshed. El Wrey runs up the walls of the hospital, slicing zombies apart with his knives in a fluid, dance-like fashion. Once “Planet Terror” gets to its poster image, of Cherry Darling getting her machine gun leg, things really explode. Though how Cherry operates her machine gun leg is never specified, she manages to dance, shoot, leap through the air, and dodge her way through a horde of mutated freaks. Even Tom Savini gets in on the carnage, combining guns and punching in a clever and amusing way. We all know by now that Rodriguez is damn good at ridiculous action like this, so “Planet Terror” is very entertaining.

The director is having such a good time, that he can't help but get goofy. “Planet Terror” is as much horror/comedy as horror/action. There's a lot of silly comedy in the film, such as sheriff's brother perpetually attempting to figure out his barbecue recipe. Or a pair of foul-mouthed and trigger happy, babysitting twins. I do like a few of the gags here, like an amusingly random deployment of a mini-bike. Or the clever use of the “Missing Reel” gimmick Rodriguez and Tarantino both included in their film. Rodriguez uses the Missing Reel to skip the tedious end of the second act, skipping ahead to the more interesting last third of the movie. The bumpy sight of bringing everyone together and revealing secret truths is just removed altogether, which actually makes things a little easier to watch.

In a nice coincidence, it turns out Rodriguez' hyper visual style suits a throwback sleaze-fest pretty well. His rough pans, fast paced edits, and sudden zooms – all things he's been doing for years – accurately replicate the kind of on-the-fly filmmaking you'd find in vintage, low budget productions. More than any other component, the score suitably captures that seventies score. The director largely composes the music himself. Hot wailing saxophones and throbbing bass pair in a convincing approximation of bump-and-grind jazz. When that's not going on, Rodriguez' score recalls the foreboding synth of John Carpenter's music. This was back before every horror indie had a Carpenter-esque score. In fact, Rodriguez directly samples Carpenter's “Escape from New York” score, making this a more legitimate form of homage.

Rather notoriously, Robert Rodriguez and Rose McGowan were dating during “Planet Terror's” production. McGowan's performance is somewhat odd. She maintains a smart-assed, vaguely Cassandra Peterson-style comedic lilt to almost all of her dialogue. This sarcastic approach sometimes seems at odd with the film's tone. Yet McGowan also attempts some “serious” acting, such as Cherry's reaction to loosing her leg. It's not a bad performance, merely off-beat. Freddy Rodriguez – no relation to the director – is more solid as El Wrey. He nicely handles the gruff, soft-spoken bad-ass role seen in so many action movies. Rodriguez has a good handle on this Eastwoodian style of toughness.

The director, naturally, can't resisting filling the supporting cast out with cameos from cult icons. My favorite of which is Jeff Fahey as J.T., the kind of weirdo hick role that Fahey can make charming and funny. The doe-eyed Marley Shelton is both vulnerable and tough as Dakota Block, honestly making me wish she had starred instead of McGowan. Josh Brolin, featuring a visible paunch, is suitably despicable as her husband. Michael Parks reprises the part of Sheriff McGraw, despite that character dying back in 1996, and makes poetry out of profane dialogue once again. I wish Michael Biehn was given more to do, though it is cool to see him being a zombie-blasting bad-ass. The more stunt-y casting decisions are harder to justify. Tom Savini mugs a little too much in his comic relief role, Fergie is distracting as a special guest victim, and Tarantino furiously hams it up as Rapist #1. (A character you can buy an action figure of, by the way.)

While “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” stand alone just fine, the entire “Grindhouse” presentation is the one I'd most recommend. The fake trailers, vintage theater bumpers, and advertisements really tie it all together. Each of the trailers work as brilliant short films. I could wax romantically about each of them at length but I'll keep this brief. Rodriguez' “Machete” is also a little too nudge-nudge with its humor and over-the-top action but nevertheless accurately captures the feel of an eighties Cannon extravaganza. Edgar Wright's “Don't” is full of the meticulous details the director specializes in. It also builds with more and more ridiculous gore gags, combined with a brilliantly funny central premise. Rob Zombie's “Werewolf Woman of the S.S.,” like many of Zombie's films, is way too impressed with its own outrageousness. At the same time, the cast is having a blast, the set design is fucking great, and that surprise cameo is brilliant. Lastly, Eli Roth's “Thanksgiving” still might be the best thing the director has ever done. Hilariously vulgar, it takes a Troma sensibilities and adds a deadpan narration and Roth's dedication to accurate period details. (The contest winning “Hobo with a Shotgun” is pretty damn good too.)

Really, my thoughts on “Grindhouse” remain unchanged. “Planet Terror” doesn't quite hold together as a feature, with a few serious flaws. While admirable, “Death Proof” is still probably Tarantino's weakest film. Stick 'em both together with all that glorious extra content and you have an utterly delightful film experience. Rodriguez' half is sillier, funnier, and more action packed. It can't beat “From Dusk Till Dawn” at its own game, as its more self-satisfied and bumpier in its plotting. However, the movie is still an awful lot of fun, with cool monster effects, crazy action, and some notable moments of comedy. If this unfurled across the screen of a dingy, inner city, dive theater in 1979, I would certainly say it gave you your money's worth. [Grade: B]

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