Salute to cinema disrepute

Posted: April 06, 2007

Grindhouse is the generic name for exploitation flicks and the disreputable theaters that showed them.Some called them degraded films in degraded environments. Others called them a blast. These omnipotent fantasies for the powerless provided a junk-food high in the junkiest imaginable of settings.

America's most gifted filmmakers got their starts with such zombie mashups, death races and soft-core porn. David Cronenberg's They Came From Within. Steven Spielberg's Duel. Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat. Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha was that unusual grindhouse hybrid, a soft-core/religio/protest pic.

Grindhouse is the specific name of the double bill of "Planet Terror" by Robert Rodriguez and "Death Proof" by Quentin Tarantino, a stunt calculated to simulate (and celebrate) scratched negatives, bad splices and triple-D titillation.

It's two, two, two flicks in one, with a running time of over three hours. Their exhaustive tribute to hungry zombies, fast girls and faster cars is . . . exhausting, if intermittently entertaining. Especially when Rodriguez is behind the camera or when the trailers for nonexistent movies, like "Machete," are teased.

Rodriguez' "Planet Terror" (which gets 21/2 stars) is a ballet of blood, beasts and breasts; Tarantino's "Death Proof" (2 stars) is a rock opera of chrome, creeps and crashes. In overall design, the films pair well, as Rodriguez's is oozy and nocturnal, Tarantino's high-octane in harsh daylight. But this is a mixed bag, a double bill for film omnivores with a high tolerance for gore and blood and sadism.

"Planet Terror" is a barbecue-flavored celebration of Night of the Living Dead, Motel Hell and They Came From Within, populated with secret Sapphists, gun-crazy car mechanics and ol' boy cops united against flesh-eating zombies and the mad scientists who made them that way.

"Death Proof" is essentially a Tarantino movie, interminable girltalk (courtesy of the wonderful Rosario Dawson and hilarious Zoƫ Bell) with a high-speed finale. It name-checks Vanishing Point about a billion times, but it struck me as a chatty nod to Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Rodriguez and Tarantino fulfill the first two of the three principal attractions of grindhouse fare.

Grindhouse flicks are made so quickly that they were the movie equivalent of automatic writing - pure, unfiltered id.

They enable a woman to navigate the male unconscious (except for Stephanie Rothman, exploitation-filmmakers were male), and grapple with the contradiction that the female power made flesh was an embodiment both of male fantasy as well as fear.

Their nonstop sensation left viewers as giddy as if they'd swallowed a controlled substance.

RR and QT do an excellent job of simulating the content of grindhouse offerings, but they don't simulate the experience or the giddy kick.

Those all-night theaters reeking of Lysol and popcorn have gone the way of the TV dinner, and today's audiences are too polite to join in the group groans and gropes and screaming at the screen that added to the, ahem, grindhouse gestalt.

Why would successful filmmakers wax nostalgic for the grindhouse? These are the movies that turned them on, the fare that made them want to make films. Film is the medium - projector malfunctions, scratched celluloid, mismatched edits and all - that inspired them. This is their wet kiss to the on-the-cheap filmmaking being replaced by digital photography and online editing.

Grindhouse: Planet Terror **1/2, Death Proof ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. With Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson and others. Distributed by Dimension Films/The Weinstein Co.

Running time: 3 hours, 15 mins.

Parent's guide: R (gore, extreme violence, nudity, drug use, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Crickey@phillynews com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at

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