‘Planet Terror’ vs. ‘Death Proof’
A cinematic nod to films of the past that pushed boundaries and tested the artistic taste of both audiences and filmmakers alike.
Quentin Tarantino Spotlight
I still remember sitting in the dark theater years ago watching Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic tribute to the blood-soaked exploitation epics of yesteryear. It was the sort of movie experience that comes around once in a lifetime, and apart from sitting through multiple back-to-back screenings at several genre film festivals, there hasn’t been anything quite like Grindhouse since. Grindhouse is an important film for me, since at the time of its release it inspired me to produce and host a film review show on CJLO, a local radio station here in the city of Montreal. That film review show went on to be named Sound On Sight, and was eventually released in podcast form, leading to the creation of the now-defunct Sound On Sight website. For the unfamiliar, I, along with my colleague Simon Howell, had been reviewing movies on the Sound On Sight podcast from April 2007 to September 2015 – a total of 500 episodes to be exact, before we decided to call it quits. What went on to become a multiple award-winning podcast, and was once listed as one of the ten best film review shows in MovieMaker Magazine, is what eventually inspired me to launch the very website you are browsing today. Without Sound On Sight, there would be no Goomba Stomp and it all began with a review of Grindhouse. Yes, folks, the pulpy, campy, and over-the-top double bill is not only the first film we reviewed on our podcast, but it led me to where I am now.
For horror fans, Grindhouse has everything you could want.
Grindhouse, released on April 6, 2007, is a cinematic nod to those films of the past that pushed boundaries with extreme depictions of sex, violence, and gore, ones that tested the artistic taste of both audiences and filmmakers alike. Dripping in nostalgia, Grindhouse pays tribute to B-movies made in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s in the best possible way. It wasn’t just in its style, image, and sound, but also in how Miramax agreed to distribute the film. Tarantino and Rodrguez set out to create an experience not seen in movie theaters in over three decades: masquerading as a double bill, Death Proof and Planet Terror were stitched together as a double feature and even included four “Coming Attractions” for nonexistent B-movies. During the intermission, viewers were treated to a collection of faux trailers from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rodriguez himself (his trailer, Machete, later becoming its own film). For the price of one ticket, you got two movies, four exclusive shorts, and more lurid sexuality and over-the-top violence than you could ever hope for.
For horror fans, Grindhouse has everything you could want. It’s a movie made in the grand tradition of Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Corbucci, Jack Hill, and John Carpenter, and it walks a fine line between tongue-in-cheek spoof and genuine homage. Beyond that, for movie fans in general, the experience was about as close as you could get in terms of reliving the experience of seeing a double bill at the drive-in. It was as good as I hoped it would be, but unfortunately, the general public didn’t take much interest. Despite a strong marketing push and a wide theatrical release, Grindhouse only made $25.4 million in the US (with a $53 million budget), and was later released on DVD with the two films separated – not the way the filmmakers wanted. A decade later, both Death Proof and Planet Terror have found a huge cult following, but fans continue to debate which of the two films is better. There’s no doubt that Grindhouse as a whole should be appreciated as a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention and a showcase for two radically different approaches to homage, but despite popular opinion, for my money, Death Proof is still the better of the two films.
Death Proof is a sly work of film criticism, commenting upon movie genres and gender roles.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character. Many complain about the “pointless” chatter, but the tough, vulgar, home-brewed Tarantino espresso dialogue buried under several in layers of quotation marks still makes for better writing than what we get in Planet Terror. The ensemble cast is also much more talented and better suited for their roles than the cast in Planet Terror, and while Planet Terror lacks a memorable villain, Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony. In addition, the remaining cast is uniformly strong. Everyone from stuntwoman Zoe Bell to Sydney Poitier and Rosario Dawson shines onscreen, not to mention the riotously funny performance from Tracie Thorns, and the wild card Rose McGowan.
Much like Planet Terror, Death Proof boasts an astonishing look, with a seemingly worn-out print covered in scratch marks, cigarette burns, bad jump cuts, and missing reels. But while playing by the genre rules, Tarantino – unlike Rodriguez – also gleefully subverts the genre to keep us on our toes. While Robert Rodriguez attempted to follow the “grindhouse” formula beat by beat and created a carbon-copy, Tarantino tried a more ambitious approach. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema.
Planet Terror is what it is – a first-rate homage to the schlocky, sleazy B-movies of decades past.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see in Robert Rodriguez’s first half. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. Finally, viewers are treated to a climax that is more shocking, vicious, and hysterically satisfying than that of Planet Terror. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius.
As for the other half of the bill. Fans of genre film will find themselves transported back to the spirit of a magical era of cult cinema with Planet Terror. Rodriguez pays homage to the gruesome shockers of the early 1980s and late ’70s in a story that centers around an experimental bio-weapon that is released on a deep southern town, turning its residents into zombie-like flesh-eating creatures. All that stands between them and the end of the world is a rag-tag group of brave survivors who decide to fight back, led by go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and her machine gun for a leg. It’s a well-crafted modern-day drive-in movie that aims for big spectacle and retro silliness, and anyone nostalgic for ’70s mediocre filmmaking will find themselves loving every frame that gleefully exploits all the exploitation conventions – sex, nudity, vehicular horror, explosions, stunt work, terrific special effects, and more (I know I did). And like Death Proof, Planet Terror comes complete with missing reels, a scratched print, cigarette burns, various film stock (that drastically changes from scene to scene), deliberately choppy editing, nauseating cinematography, cheesy dialogue, and unrelated filler sequences. Applied to a double-bill along with the inclusion of Rodriguez’s spoof trailer for Machete, Planet Terror is the closest anyone has come to recreating the Times Square midnight movie experience.
Apart from the overall look of the film, the cast is also fantastic – particularly McGowan, a blubbering pole dancer who becomes the film’s iconic image and lead avenger. The one-time wanna-be medical-student-now-aspiring-stand-up-comedienne becomes a gun-toting heroine after a crazed zombie attack. Marley Shelton is equally good as the homicidal doctor planning to leave her husband (Josh Brolin) to run off with her former lesbian lover (Stacey Ferguson, aka Fergie). Brolin and her share great onscreen chemistry as the troubled cohabitants and Freddy Rodriguez fares well in his first starring role as an action star. His months practicing firing guns, handling knives, and choreographing fight sequences paid off. Tom Savini gets frequent laugh-out-loud funny moments, and Robert Rodriguez’s real-life nieces (“The Babysitter Twins”) and real-life son Tommy supply two of the film’s most memorable scenes. Meanwhile, images of Dakota struggling to open a car door with anesthetized hands and Josh Brolin under attack by the undead via a power saw will linger in your head. The mix of non-stop action, hospital melodrama, showgirl horror, mad scientist mayhem, and biological warfare makes for a highly entertaining exploitation thriller.
There’s no doubt, Rodriguez’s installment wins points for doing a better job faitfully replicating the look and feel of classic low-grade gore films. Unfortunately, the cast doesn’t always work – including Tarantino, who cameos as a rapist/soldier who takes a liking to McGowan’s physical resemblance to Ava Gardner. In addition, Bruce Willis pops up to no particular effect, leaving one to wonder if he just accidentally walked on set. Finally, the last act doesn’t quite live up to the previous ones, and the end result is a wildly uneven horror-comedy that starts tight only to eventually lose focus.
The argument as to which of the two films is better will continue to be debated. Many will say Tarantino failed to live up to the grindhouse mantle, but in my eyes Death Proof is a sly work of film criticism, commenting upon movie genres and gender roles. Planet Terror is what it is – a first-rate homage to the schlocky, sleazy B-movies of decades past, but nothing more. Yes, I love everything about it, from the geysers of blood, intriguing camera work, and an extremely playful editing style, to the gross-out effects, cheesy dialogue, and amputee action, but Tarantino gets a slight edge for delivering on his promise of classic exploitation tropes, while also demonstrating how the genre can continue to grow.
- Ricky D