The two bad boys of film are at it again. Quentin Tarantino, whose earlier work includes three masterpieces - "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown" and "Kill Bill" - that among other things have forever changed the way movies are made and looked at, now has collaborated with his friend Robert Rodriguez on a retro double feature they call "Grindhouse," in an homage to the third, fourth and fifth-run movie houses that I can remember from my misspent youth on 42nd Street. "Grindhouse" is made up of two features: "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof." For verisimilitude they've streaked the prints with simulated scratches, gone in and out of focus, replaced supposedly lost reels with the printed notice "Reel Missing," and even added trailers for nonexistent features, that run between the two films.
Rodriguez opens the pair with "Planet Terror," a zombie feature in which every cliché of the genre is hauled out, lovingly handled, and carefully set back in place. Where else will you see the virus's pustules coming and going, infecting and then disappearing, on the faces of the doomed? Or heads ripped off at the neck? Where else will you see the heroine (Rose McGowan), who's lost her leg at the hip, having it replaced with a prosthetic machine gun that can shoot to kill zombies every time she lifts it? And nowhere else, I guarantee, will you see the villain use a lopper to cut off the testicles of his victims.
In other words, this is a zombie film to end all zombie films, and I only wish Rodriguez had done a better job; trying to shoehorn every possible element into his film he's lost sight of the fact that his original models were a lot neater than this. They had a simple, internal logic that "Planet Terror" lacks; here everything works at cross purposes instead of leading inexorably to a final, simpleminded resolution. Sometimes not being ambitious makes for a better film; you get the feeling that Rodriguez outsmarted himself by being too bright, too aware, too sophisticated for the genre.
Tarantino's "Death Proof," on the other hand, doesn't try to do too much and ends up all the better for it. It has its evil figure, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell having an absolute ball after years of playing good guys), who once had a brother, Stuntman Bob. Stuntman Mike's thing is to pick up beautiful women, put them in the passenger seat of his hopped-up 1970 Dodge, and kill them by crashing the car and sending them headfirst into the windshield. Well, why not? If you're going to create a villain, do it right.
"Death Proof" begins with four beautiful young women riding in a car and holding a long, rambling conversation - a Tarantino trademark, if you remember the opening of "Pulp Fiction" - and then moving to a bar in Austin, Texas, where they're trying to score some marijuana. Stuntman Mike is there and offers to drive another young woman home. We see what happens to her, and then we are with another group of four beautiful women in a car, of whom two happen to be stunt women on a film that's shooting nearby. So - will they meet Stuntman Mike? Will he try to kill them? Will the stunt women end up driving their muscle car in a chase with Stuntman Mike? My lips are sealed, except to point out that the entire car chase was filmed live, with no computer-generated effects or other trickery.
Because it is simpler, "Death Proof" is a better film than "Planet Terror," but the best part of the program is the group of trailers for coming attractions that "Grindhouse" runs between the two features. There's "Werewolf Women of the SS," and "Machete," and "Don't Scream!" and "Thanksgiving," which is not quite what you expect from a national holiday. They're all marvelous miniatures, and well worth the price of admission (more than the 40 cents I used to pay) to the whole thing.