At three hours and change, boasting two rowdy full-length features, a slew of garish fake coming attractions, and steady eruptions of carnage and cruelty, the Quentin Tarantino–Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse is an ode to the era of exploitation houses and an orgy for those who want to live (or relive) the dream. It’s a real Travis Bickle night out—a switchback journey into the belly of the B-movie beast. First, Rodriguez serves up a zombie-infection shoot-’em-up splatterfest called Planet Terror, which plays like a bunch of other horror movies stitched together by a sloppy but high-spirited mad scientist. Then comes Tarantino’s Death Proof, a more intimate and much more disturbing brew. All that’s missing are the scary bathrooms and pungent aromas of urine and dope.
Rodriguez has learned a few moves since his last big Tarantino collaboration, the rhythmless vampire farrago From Dusk Till Dawn. In this Tex-Mex bouillabaisse, he has a luscious object in Rose McGowan, who opens Planet Terror with a lissome, semi-naked pole dance and then sinks to the stage in tears: What a soulful actress, what a bod. Rodriguez’s camera drinks in her pink face with its dimpled chin and pillowy red lips, then hugs her long stems in her short vinyl skirt and go-go boots. There it is, folks—the story in pictures of why he left his wife and kids for her. When rampaging zombies rip off one of those gams and the hot-rod hero (Freddy Rodríguez) screws a submachine gun into her stump, McGowan edges out Uma Thurman in Kill Bill as the ultimate abused-and-fetishized action-movie femme. The other heroine is mangled and fetishized, too—Marley Shelton (the doomed beauty in the overture to Rodriguez’s Sin City) as a skinny blonde lesbian doctor with a set of syringes tucked into her garter. It’s always a trip to watch exploitation auteurs ogle their female characters while those ladies are busy nailing male voyeurs.
Malignant machismo is embodied by Bruce Willis as an infected commando whose face begins to bubble when he stops breathing the (short-term) antidote. (I won’t reveal the source of the contagion—but it has a nice, resonant political tang.) Before long, the maimed and the festering converge on an Austin barbecue joint, where most of the ensemble is shot, blown up, or dismembered. This isn’t your usual exploding-blood-squib splatter, by the way; think exploding water balloons. In Planet Terror’s brief but tumultuous running time, Rodriguez pays homage to a long line of directors, from Howard Hawks to George Romero to John Carpenter to his bad-boy buddy, Tarantino—who shows up as an actor in his favorite kind of role, a sexual sadist who gets a gory comeuppance.
Which brings us to Death Proof, in which the murders are more shocking, insofar as the characters are viewed as something other than receptacles of blood and pus. What makes some critics’ knee-jerk derision of Tarantino so vexing is that he’s more than a violence peddler. He’s a predatory humanist. He loves just to hang out with his soon-to-be-beleaguered characters, in this case two sets of women. The first three—a celebrity Austin D.J. known as Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito)—are chafing under their roles as women of color and objects of lust. (Of course, they do stretch out in short shorts for our delectation.) In a local bar and chili parlor, a pair of geeks (director Eli Roth and Omar Doom) plot ways to get the women drunk and into bed. But they’re lightweights beside the scarred macho man (Kurt Russell) at the bar who calls himself Stuntman Mike, does John Wayne imitations, and drives a black Charger he boasts is reinforced for high-speed collisions and rollovers: deathproof.
The scene in the bar goes on and on, to the point where you wonder just what the point is, although Rose McGowan is delightful in an entirely different role, a blonde hippie chick, and as Tarantino’s camera arcs around the room, the dread becomes increasingly hard to dispel. The second set of women show up before we’ve fully digested the fate of the first group. But these are ladies of a different stripe, fresh from a movie shoot: a makeup person (Rosario Dawson), an actress in a flouncy cheerleader uniform (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, most significantly, a pair of stuntwomen (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms) who gush about vintage speedsters and car movies like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry: macho girls behaving badly. It’s the other side of the grindhouse, from Russ Meyer’s boobalicious kickboxers to Pam Grier’s foxy vigilantes. Chicks you mess with at your peril.
Death Proof, like all of Tarantino’s work, exists in a strange space between homage and masturbation. It’s a grim stalker picture, a car-chase picture, and a raucous anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece, dredged up from the psyche of a movie freak who loves women onscreen almost as much as he loves to punish women onscreen, and who (this is what makes him an artist) gets off most on his own ambivalence.