Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature, “Grindhouse,” an exuberant tribute to the lowbrow exploitation cinema of the seventies, begins with a preview of a kitten in neon colors and a warning that this material “may not be suitable for children.” Without warning, we are transported to a Texas strip club where the luscious Rose McGowan fills up the entire screen with a breathtaking pole dance and collapses on the floor in tears. After watching her gyrate for three minutes, I nearly felt like doing the same. In the first feature, “Planet Terror,” directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Spy Kids”), a few brave souls must save the planet from evil zombies, who are infecting mortals in Texas with a mysterious viral disease that causes blistering faces and gooey, exploding body parts. Yum. When ex-lovers Cherry Darling (McGowan) and El Wray – the small, suddenly heroic Freddy Rodriguez – meet up in the barbecue joint, The Bone Shack, the gore is just getting started.
There is no more engaging image in “Terror” than McGowan crouched on the asphalt, spraying mutant zombies with bullets from her prosthetic machine-gun leg and watching them explode. Rodriguez has rescued a few actresses from an abyss of late-90s high school movies to great success. McGowan, best known for her role on the late WB series “Charmed,” is fantastic as the go-go dancer Cherry Darling, and Marley Shelton, her gigantic blue eyes shrouded in running mascara, has a great sense of comedic timing as the zombie-killing Dr. Dakota. Other highlights include Bruce Willis and Naveen Andrews, sporting a head scarf and a jar of pickled testicles. Besides these moments, however, “Planet Terror” isn’t particularly exciting or original. That, in fact, may be its problem. In its faithfulness to the gory flicks to which it is paying tribute, it fails to come up with anything particularly worthwhile or memorable besides horrifically disgusting images that literally made me gag. With purposely-scratched film and “missing reels,” it is so determined to be faithful to the exploitation flicks of yore that it never becomes unique. It becomes a string of quotes and sight gags, and it fails to have any sort of sociopolitical message, something that made the original xenophobic zombie movies frightening to begin with. With no real subtext to the narrative, body parts blister, fester and explode, and the audience waits for McGowan to come back onscreen and blow more smoke from her machine-gun leg.
After the incredibly entertaining mock trailers during intermission – “Thanksgiving” is particularly inspired – we have “Death Proof,” the second feature, in which Quentin Tarantino departs from the labored homage of Rodriguez and opts for something completely different. His references include the car movies of the seventies, particularly the 1970 Dodge Challenger seen in the cult classic, “Vanishing Point.” Kurt Russell, as the deliciously deathly Stuntman Mike, is the only real dude character in this love letter to tough women. Taking a U-turn from “Planet Terror,” the majority of this film consists of self-conscious girl talk between female stars such as Rosario Dawson and Sydney Tamiia Poitier. “Death Proof” takes place in a Tarantino fantasy world in which hot girl DJs wander around the house in their underwear and drink beers while quoting obscure rock songs and movie trivia. They hang out barefoot and wiggle their toes outside car windows, feeding the director’s kinky foot fetish. Then they go to bars and listen to more music, drink more, trash-talk and text-message men. As a woman watching this perspective of the female psyche, I couldn’t help but wonder – does he think that this is all we do? As the clunky dialogue dragged on and on, first with one group of women and then another, the viewer becomes more and more fatigued and frustrated, and is completely unprepared for the ending – namely, one of the most exciting car chases ever filmed. Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman’s stunt-double in the “Kill Bill” movies, acquires a 1970 Dodge Challenger with her spunky stunt-double girlfriends and rides the hood of it, performing all the stunts herself, as Stuntman Mike tries to ride the women off the road. This car chase is the most stunning thing in “Grindhouse,” because, paradoxically, there is no artifice in its imitation of life – no special effects, no labored dialogue, only one camera and one strong woman riding the hood of a car. This astonishing and beautiful tribute to cinema takes something old and reinvents it with glorious success. I felt all my annoyance melt away at the excitement of this daredevil woman and the daredevil director who takes risks and, sometimes, comes up with sheer brilliance.