Watching Death Proof, the second, Tarantino-directed half of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double bill, Grindhouse (the Weinstein Co.), there are moments that feel like a throwback to seeing Pulp Fiction in a crowded multiplex in 1994, with the audience gasping and giggling in delighted unison at the wild plot twists and goofy patter. We've all experienced some degree of Tarantino fatigue since then, whether with the director himself (who sometimes seems to be using the screen as a place to play out his own airless adolescent fantasies) or with the endless imitations spawned by his particular brand of fast-talking, genre-savvy splatter (this year's dreadful Smokin' Aces is one latter-day example).
But Death Proof is a reminder of what there was to like about Tarantino in the first place: his uncanny ear for dialogue that's at once naturalistic and deliriously wordy, his kinetic action sequences, and his voracious love for cinema in all its incarnations, especially the sleazy ones. With its lean 90-minute running time and a near-complete absence of CGI, Death Proof feels like an experiment in austerity after more than a decade in which Tarantino had free run of the special-effects candy store. And it works fabulously, much to the surprise of this generally Tarantino-weary writer.
But true to the logic of the double feature, I will keep you waiting for the juicy stuff. First, a few words on the curious artifact that is Grindhouse: not just two back-to-back horror features but a whole package of painstakingly reproduced exploitation entertainment, including four trailers for fake coming attractions and a local ad for a sad-looking Tex-Mex joint called Acuña Boys ("located right next to the theater!"). The whole bundle clocks in at just more than 3 hours and 10 minutes' running time. The film stock is scratched, the soundtrack is full of pops, there are frames and whole reels missing—in short, no effort has been spared to make this feel like a long Sunday matinee at a dubiously safe movie house in 1973 (though both movies are set in the present day).
Planet Terror, Rodriguez's feature contribution, is 10 minutes shorter than Death Proof, but it feels 20 minutes longer. That may be because Rodriguez's project—to reconstruct a vintage zombie flick with a few satirical twists—paints itself into a corner conceptually, while Tarantino's manages to open out from genre parody onto something new. Planet Terror's setup is pure George Romero: On a military base, chemical weapons are unleashed that threaten to turn the population of a small town—and, eventually, the entire world—into flesh-eating monsters with bubbly pustules on their faces. Humanity's only hope rests with a small band of townsfolk who are mysteriously resistant to the virus, including Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a mysterious loner who may be the legendary gunman El Rei; Dakota McGraw (Marley Shelton), a doctor who's planning to leave her husband for her lesbian lover (Stacy Ferguson, aka Fergie); and Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) a go-go dancer and would-be stand-up comic who loses her leg in a zombie-related incident. Wray's attempts to compensate for Cherry's severed limb eventually result in the film's iconic poster image: a beautiful woman with a machine-gun prosthesis for a leg, blasting the hell out of some wicked zombies. It's a sexy visual joke that goes a long way, but not quite as far as Rodriguez wants to stretch it.
Planet Terror is effective insofar as it keeps the viewer in a constant state of nauseated tension with one gross-out image after another. The gore is deliberately fake-looking and absurd, but that doesn't make it any less yucky to watch Naveen Andrews pelt Bruce Willis with a bag full of severed human testicles. Rodriguez, who directed the Spy Kids movies and co-created The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl with his young son, is like a fourth-grade boy trying to elicit the biggest "ew" possible from his audience: "What if a zombie, like, popped his giant face pustule right into your mouth?" Ew.
I won't reveal a lot about Death Proof's story here, since the subversion of slasher-movie conventions (who lives, who doesn't; who's a main character, who's not) is responsible for most of the movie's thrills. We spend the first half-hour or more cruising aimlessly around Austin with a trio of sexy young women (Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, and Jordan Ladd). Amid long stretches of desultory Tarantinian jabber, they drink, send text messages, flirt with random men at bars, and generally make being single in Austin look like the most fun a human could possibly have. Those who like their action fast and furious may find this windup too slow, but I loved the way it played with the standard rhythm of the horror movie, in which characters (especially female ones) are set up just enough for us to care—but not too much—when they get gutted. Here, the women emerge as separate, vibrant personalities: not the slut, the nice girl, and the quiet best friend, but three rowdy, unapologetically sexual party girls who care more about each other than the dudes trying to get into their pants.
Those dudes include Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a grizzled, slightly pathetic biker-type who boasts about having done work for TV shows that were before the girls' time. He offers another bar patron (Rose McGowan) a ride home in his tricked-out stunt car—and then—but here I should leave a reel missing in the grand grindhouse tradition and let you find out for yourself.
In the movie's second half, another group of young women drive around exchanging verbal jabs. This time, all of them are professionals from the film industry, including two stuntwomen, Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe (Zoe Bell—a real-life stuntwoman who served as Uma Thurman's stunt double in the Kill Bill movies). Kim and Zoe are looking for kicks, as off-duty stuntwomen will do, and they have a pistol, a 1970 Dodge Challenger that doesn't belong to them, and a willingness to do stuff no sane person would dare. Re-enter Stuntman Mike, and cue an extended and spectacular car chase—spectacular not because of the number and variety of stunts but because all of them are really happening, on a real speeding car, with the real Zoe Bell clinging to the hood. Tarantino's choice to use a stuntperson in a major role, make us care about her character, and then place her in physical peril is a simple but brilliant coup that may spark a new casting trend in Hollywood (in Asia, they've been doing it for a while). But please, little girls with stuntwoman dreams—don't try this at home.
Among the fake trailers, two stand out as gems. Rodriguez directed a two-minute teaser for a revenge-of-the-federales picture called Machete whose tag line says it all: "They fucked with the wrong Mexican." And Edgar Wright, the director of the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, contributes a brilliant parody of those horror-movie teasers based entirely on reverse psychology: "If you're thinking of going in the basement: Don't. If you're thinking of seeing this movie alone: Don't." The movie's title: Don't.
It's tough to imagine how, or whether, Grindhouse will find an audience, given its behemoth running time and incessant referencing of pop-cultural trivia that will be alien to anyone under 30 and plenty of people much older than that. But you don't need to be an exploitation fanboy to appreciate the energy, imagination, and spirit with which Rodriguez and Tarantino pay homage to the cheapo cinema they love.