After a lot of internal debate regarding potential boredom and offensive factors, I finally decided to sit through all three hours of Grindhouse, the latest Quentin Tarantino installment. Regardless of my doubts going into the movie and my expectations of being bored, annoyed and distracted, I have to say that the movie was a riotously fun way to dump three hours of my life. The minute the first “faux trailer” began to the last final rolling credits, my attention was held and I never once stopped enjoying myself. And while some of my enjoyment was a result of excellent fast-paced filmmaking, the majority of my delirious cinematic pleasure was due to the fact that both movies in this double bill ultimately are about fringe people rising to the fore to kick the establishment’s ass.
Just in case you don’t know what Grindhouse is, it is Tarantino and Robert Rodgriguez’s ode to 70s B movies. It features a double-bill of two separate movies wrapped into one — Planet Terror (directed by Rodriguez) and Death Proof (directed by Tarantino) sandwiched together with faux trailers, ads, and a variety of awesome cinematic embellishments, including scratched film, melting celluloid, missing reels, and defective sound. Personally, I grew up during the heyday of The Greatest Cinematic Period Of All Time: 1968–1973. Besides producing a lot of dead bodies and a torrent of civil unrest, the Vietnam War and the massive government corruption that accompanied it inspired a hell of a lot of excellent filmmaking. While the streets were seething with protesters and hippies, I spent every weekend at the Seavue Theater watching everything from Planet of the Apes to Vanishing Point to Easy Rider to Bonnie and Clyde to Ode to Billy Jack. My parents were of the demographic who “took their kids to anything.” In other words, throw the kids into the backseat without seat belts, crack open a couple of beers, light up a Marlboro, and head to the movie theater. So as a kid, I saw no end of boobies, guns and sex and violence in the movie theater. And when I wasn’t in the movie theater, I was holed up in the basement with Creature Features and no end of sci-fi horror schlock on the television. In other words, my brain is a B Movie Vault. My collective cinematic memory houses the entire lexicon of the movies that Rodriguez and Tarantino reference in Grindhouse, so watching this movie was like being able to watch a foreign movie without subtitles. I knew the language, and I laughed my ass off.
I told myself I wasn’t going to write a lot about Grindhouse because the thing about this kind of movie, particularly with Tarantino, is that it is so self-conscious about what it is doing cinematically that it kind of takes the joy out of writing about it. It’s more fun to write about that which is not obvious or sometimes even intentional in film. Simply reciting Tarantino’s obvious intentions is just not that fun or interesting. It’s more fun and interesting just to watch them unfold on the screen. But then I started thinking about what’s happening in Grindhouse, particularly in relation to the Girls Kick Ass Factor, and I couldn’t help myself. I had to write about it. So here goes.
Three hours is a long time to sit through a movie, but in Grindhouse you’re not sitting through one movie, you’re sitting through two movies. One of the main reasons the entire three hours of the film works is because the two films are so completely different. The Rodriguez film comes first and is phenomenally awesome example of a classic zombie narrative. It’s one hell of a disgusting, fun, thrilling, gross, violent, and vile ride. Just when you get through the Rodriguez and think you can’t possibly sit through another 90 minutes, the movie shifts gears. The Tarantino kicks in and dives into the existential road movie meets the slasher auto terrorist film meets the rape revenge narrative, and it engages a completely different part of the cinematic brain.
Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a classic zombie narrative, plays on that tried and true zombie tradition of using zombies to critique power hierarchies (race, class, gender), militarization, and/or global capital culture. That’s what zombie movies do. The very word zombie connotes a certain political state of being — dumbed down by the media, brains replaced with commodities, worker robots in the great Capital Machine, etc. Think of George Romero’s Dead series in which his first installment, Night of the Living Dead, was an allegory of racial discrimination and class in the United States and in which his most recent installment, Land of the Dead, is an allegory about the brutalization of the working class and the terror of global capital. That’s pretty much what zombie movies always have done; they show the abuses of power, capital, and mass media and how those abuses create a landscape of living dead zombies whose brains have been wiped out and replaced with the mindless and unquenchable desire to murder and consume.
Planet Terror is no different. The basic story line unfolds to show how the US military in its hunt for Osama Bin Laden and its War on Terror inadvertently contracted a horrible virus that turns people into flesh eating zombies who are not only zombies but some of the most disgusting monstroid humans ever to grace the movie theater. The virus from the war spreads from the soldiers to the masses of Middle Americans who contract it and become zombies themselves (sound familiar?). A handful of people are seemingly immune to the virus and band together to fight the Great Zombie Infection. Needless to say the survivors are those who occupy the social fringes — the brown, the queer, and the otherwise marginalized (a.k.a. Mexicans, lesbians, and strippers). So basically in one little 90-minute zombie movie, you have a portrait of the current American political landscape and its policies of war, border control, and race, class, sex, and gender discrimination.
I’m sure it was no accident that Rodriguez’s film (given that Rodriguez is a Mexican American director) is much more politically driven than Tarantino’s. Rodriguez’s faux trailer Machete certainly prepares our political palette. Machete is the typical B revenge movie in which a Mexican laborer is fucked over by the US government who tries to exploit and then kill him. (Sound like anything you’ve been reading in the news lately?) But Machete is one bad ass motherfucker who refuses to let the US government fuck him over, so he takes matters into his own hands in the form of (you guessed it) some mean looking machetes. So while Rodriguez’s feature length film shows us the ugly horror of the current political landscape in regards to the War on Terror and the War on the Social Fringes, his Machete trailer specifically addresses the fascist monster state that creates institutions like the Department of Homeland Security and Border Control and the need to eradicate such monstrosities with whatever works (i.e., machetes!).
Nevertheless, putting politics aside, because ALL zombie movies are political, Planet Terror is one hell of a fun, campy, hilarious, and disgusting cinematic romp. It plays on every gross movie ever made, every zombie movie ever made, every virus paranoia movie ever made, and maybe even every B movie ever made. If you’re going to eat before this movie, I wouldn’t recommend eating red sauce or sausage or anything with mayonnaise. This movie is a non-stop bodily ooze extravaganza full of blood, guts, puss, boils, and severed limbs. Zombies squeeze their oozing sores and puss shoots across the screen. Men fall into a sea of slimy testicles that have burst from a specimen jar. Brains get eaten out of skulls. Legs get chomped off. Penises turn into blobs of an oozing exploding pizza like substance. And between all the bursting boils and flesh eating zombie heads, there are a lot of jokes and some serious kick ass women. In fact, this is the movie that stars Cherry, the Go Go Dancer with a machine gun leg. And Cherry, my friends, is She Who Kicks Major Ass. There are no end of men who do battle against the zombies in this movie, but in the end the real heroes are the women — the lesbian doctor, the Mexican babysitters, and, most importantly, Cherry. The scenes with Cherry shooting zombies at the end of the movie are totally worth the price of admission. Further, not only does Cherry kick some zombie butt, but she also manages to establish a New Utopia on the sea in Mexico where she is matriarch. In the end, the infected US military and its legacy of exploding testicles has vanished. Instead, we see a kind of Utopian Playboy Mansion on the sea, where the Hugh Hefner Patriarch has been replaced by the ex-stripper Cherry and her machine gun leg. Cherry guides the lost, forlorn, and marginal to this New Utopia by the sea where lesbians and former strippers guard the gate, and the real Kick Ass Mother is reinstated.
While Tarantino’s installment Death Proof is not as politically charged as Rodriguez’s, it does tackle gender politics of movies and particularly of his own movies. I have always said that Tarantino’s best movie is Reservoir Dogs because it has no women in it. It’s when Tarantino added women to his films that they started getting sloppy and problematic. In Death Proof, Tarantino goes back to basics with a clean, crisp, no-fucking-around screenplay in which he breaks women free from the misogynistic fetters of the B movie. Death Proof is like Ms. 45 meets Vanishing Point as Tarantino inverts the female role in the B horror film and allows women to rise up and kick the ass of the man who has terrorized and killed them on the screen. The movie starts with the classic story of a bunch of airhead girls acting like, well, airhead girls — getting high, getting drunk, acting stupid and getting killed by a Psycho Fuck. Psycho Fuck in this case is Stunt Man Mike (most excellently played by Kurt Russell) who can only get his load off by murdering stupid girls with his car. Hence reflecting on a long tradition of cinematic history, Mike’s penis is his car, and his car is his penis. So the murder of the girls with his car can also be read as rape.
This brings me to my Vanishing Point meets Ms. 45 formulation. Vanishing Point is the quintessential movie in which the man’s car (Kowalski’s 1970 Challenger) becomes not only his entire being but his entire sexuality. Ms. 45, of course, is the quintessential Rape Revenge narrative in which the main character named Zoe picks up a 45 and goes on a violent murder streak to avenge her rape. In the second half of the Tarantino movie, a group of women working on a film crew fall under Stuntman Mike’s radar to be his next victims. What Mike doesn’t know is that two of the women are stuntwomen, one of whom is named Zoe. In a clean and tightly constructed Tarantino sequence, bringing two historically significant B movies together, Zoe becomes obsessed with the same car Kowalski drove in Vanishing Point — a white 1970 Challenger. Zoe ultimately finds a Challenger, and her and two other women go on an insane joy ride, which you’ll have to see for yourself. On the joy ride, the women and Mike go head to head as he tries to kill them (a.k.a. rape them) with his car (a.k.a. penis). What ensues is an awesome confrontation between the girls’ Challenger and Mike’s Charger ending in a beautifully executed revenge scene in which the women, led by Zoe (remember Ms. 45), rise to the top, take massive and violent revenge on the Psycho Fuck who tried to kill them, and reclaim their role in B movies. So while the first half of the movie shows the traditional role of women in B films as “victims,” Tarantino reverses that role in the second half of the film and allows the women to take control of the penis (the car), pick up arms, kick some butt, and kill the fucker who tried to victimize them; hence reclaiming their status in cinema and putting the woman in the driver’s seat.
So in the end, both movies in Grindhouse — Planet Terror and Death Proof — are about the marginalized rising to the top and inverting established hierarchies. More specifically, both films are about women taking the reigns and kicking some ass, and I like movies about women who kick ass.