Cinematic homage comes in all shapes and sizes—and varies enormously in quality. Recently in “The Good German” Steven Soderbergh managed a virtually pitch-perfect imitation of wartime thrillers like “Casablanca.” That’s an example of honoring good pictures with a homage that was uneven but generally pretty successful—and that stayed within the stylistic and chronological parameters of the movies it was mimicking. Another talented filmmaker, Brian De Palma, has spent much of his career imitating Hitchcock pictures—great films, without question—not always successfully, and more loosely than Soderbergh did (updating his models to the present, for instance). But among recent homages “Grindhouse” is the five-hundred pound gorilla. It’s an affectionate tribute not merely to exploitation movies of the 1970s, but to the entire double-feature format in which they were shown in lower-level theatres. So it’s a homage to movies that aren’t just bad but ostentatiously bad, and it tries to duplicate the experience of sitting through two of them at one gulp, complete with damaged prints, missing reels, a run of trailers for other equally kitschy flicks, and interstitial blurbs for businesses or information from the management. The only things that will be lacking in some of today’s state-of-the-art megaplexes are the broken-down seats, muck-covered floors, and memorable stench such places ordinarily housed. (Maybe the Smell-O-Vision process could be resurrected to add that “atmosphere”—although if the crowd at the preview this reviewer attended is any indication, it might not be necessary after opening day.)
So what you get in this splashy, action-packed epic is one feature each from cult-fave directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, along with four jokey trailers, one up front by Rodriguez and others at the “interval” by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. The whole shebang runs slightly over three hours (not counting the endless final credits).
The first half, after a preview for a berserk Mexican-theme actioner called “Machete,” is a zombie flick called “Planet Terror” written and directed by Rodriguez. Following it, an eight-minute “intermission” offers three additional phony trailers, Zombie’s trumpeting the Nazi-themed “Werewolf Women of the SS,” Wright’s previewing “Don’t,” a slasher flick (as in “Don’t Open That Door!”), and Roth’s “Thanksgiving,” a typical holiday-based maniac entry. Then Tarantino’s contribution follows, a wild car-chase movie titled “Death Proof.” Put it all together and you have a real behemoth, a sprawling, ferocious, wild-eyed combination homage and send-up of two exploitation genres from thirty-some years ago.
But it’s a giant of a homage with a pea-sized brain. In a way that’s inevitable given the kinds of movies being copied and spoofed, of course, but one might have expected Rodriguez and Tarantino to have been more imaginative and less heavy-handed in doing their thing. (After all, Mel Brooks took off on lamebrain westerns in “Blazing Saddles,” but added something worth watching to them.) But all these two “features” add to their models are modern machinery (automatic weaponry, cell phones, text messages), a wink-wink quality (a sort of knowing hipness that fan-boy types will automatically judge to be the essence of cool), and—of course—buckets of blood, gore and scattered body parts (most notably—in what might be called a revolting leitmotif in Rodriguez’s contribution, an unhealthy fixation on testicles). Neither of the pictures manages to re-imagine or re-invent the type of movie it’s tipping the hat to in a really satisfying way.
Take “Planet Terror.” I guess you could describe it in narrative terms as a kind of fusion between “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Blob,” but it’s told in the style of one of Roth’s modern-day Sadism-Is-Us exercises to pander to the blood-lust of contemporary adolescent viewers, and ends up being more repulsive than nostalgically amusing. Most of the recent spate of zombie movies were more fun than Rodriguez’s, and although it was made for far less money and was about aliens rather than zombies, “Feast” captured the tone of the movies he’s copying much better than this one does—and was much more enjoyable in its grisly excess. As for Tarantino’s flick, it references “Vanishing Point” a couple of times, but apart from a big car chase at the close, it’s a very different kettle of fish, centering on a maniacal killer who targets groups of beautiful young women with his souped-up car and eventually gets the comeuppance he deserves. But most of the running-time is devoted to that shallowly with-in sort of dialogue Tarantino specializes in, and a little of that (especially among the girls) goes a long way.
In each case there are, of course, elements that will bring at least a smile. Rodriguez, for instance, offers a hilarious bit in which his heroine loses a leg, which is then replaced with a machine gun she makes ample use of. And Tarantino’s movie not only puts its “Missing reel” in exactly the right place, but ends with that spectacular car-chase that’s all the more impressive for being done without CGI, as much a throwback as Tony Jaa’s stunts. And though acting isn’t a major matter of concern in this sort of thing, Freddy Rodriguez struts well as the rebellious hero of “Planet Terror,” and Kurt Russell has a lip-smacking field day as the bad-guy of “Death Proof.” On the other hand, Tarantino’s on-screen appearances in both films are only the worst examples of over-the-top turns that turn a lot of what goes on into bad sketch comedy.
The problems continue into the four pseudo-trailers. Rodriguez’s has its moments, especially when Cheech Martin shows up as a priest, but Zombie’s is an unfunny mess (even a “guest appearance” by Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu barely registers), and Roth’s is a bloody bore. The only one that really works is Wright’s canny send-up of slasher movie conventions, even if it could have done without Nick Frost’s blurry cameo in the “basement” section.
From the technical perspective you have to admire the way in which the directors, acting as their own cameramen, ape the look of the pictures they’re emulating, with Rodriguez making far more use of the “distressed footage” trick than Tarantino does. All of the behind-the-scenes crew work diligently to achieve the so-bad-it’s-good appearance (with accompanying music tracks).
But ultimately this epic-length valentine to schlock movies isn’t “bad” enough—in the slang sense—to be really good. As was the case with most of the AIP exploitation programmers it fondly recalls, “Grindhouse” proves more entertaining to anticipate than actually to watch. Maybe it would have been better to have kept “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” in the trailer stage themselves.