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Dedicating Their Lives To Recreating the Junk of Their Childhood

February 14th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Grindhouse (2007)
Written by Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, fake trailer Machete), Rob Zombie (fake trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S.), Edgar Wright (fake trailer Don’t), Jeff Rendell & Eli Roth (fake trailer Thanksgiving) and Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, fake trailer Machete), Rob Zombie (fake trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S.), Edgar Wright (fake trailer Don’t), Eli Roth (fake trailer Thanksgiving) and Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof)
Produced by Troublemaker Studios/ Dimension Films
Running time: 191 minutes (theatrical version)/ 105 minutes (Planet Terror, DVD version)/ 113 minutes (Death Proof, DVD version)

Grindhouse 2007 poster Grindhouse 2007 poster

[All through the month of February, Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter has declared a tribute to films that are “M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD.” This article is a contribution to his series.]

Synopsis

In Planet Terror – the first half of a double feature – go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) walks off the job and ends up reuniting with her enigmatic ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at a Texas barbecue shack. At a nearby military base, a platoon led by the stoic Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) accidentally unleashes a nerve toxin, exacerbating the marriage between Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her temperamental husband Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) as townspeople filter into the ER with grotesque skin conditions. A full blown outbreak of cannibalistic sickos is soon at hand. Cherry is attacked and loses her leg, which the resourceful El Wray replaces with a table leg and later, a machine gun. Also banding together against the onslaught of freaks are the sheriff (Michael Biehn), his estranged brother and rib shack owner (Jeff Fahey) and a pair of nutty babysitters (Electra Avellan, Elise Avellan).

In the bottom half of the bill – Death Proof – Austin drive-time deejay Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) is picked up by her friends (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) and goes in search of a party the night of her birthday. They end up drunk, stoned and bored at the “Texas Chili Parlor,” where the girls cross paths with a scarred loner who goes by the name Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). When the girls decide to head to Lake LBJ, Stuntman Mike follows them out, giving a ride to a bar patron (Rose McGowan again) in his loaded for bear 1970 Chevy Nova. None of the ladies reach their destinations. Months later, Stuntman Mike appears in Tennessee, where a pair of stuntwomen (Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms), a makeup artist (Rosario Dawson) and a model/actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes a prized 1970 Dodge Challenger for a spin through the backroads. Stuntman Mike intercepts the girls, but gets a little more than he bargained for.

Grindhouse 2007 Rosario Dawson Tracie Thoms Zoe Bell

Production history

Robert Rodriguez met Quentin Tarantino in 1992 at the Toronto Film Festival. “I knew about his movie, Reservoir Dogs already ’cause my agent had seen it and said, ‘You’re going to love this guy Quentin Tarantino; he’s made a new movie, Reservoir Dogs, it’s really cool.’ I saw it at the Telluride Film Festival; he wasn’t there, but then we met in Toronto. So Toronto Film Festival, we ran into each other in the lobby; I had already seen the movie and I just went on and on about it. And he hadn’t seen Mariachi yet … We went to the El Mariachi screening together; he sat next to me, because by then we had become fast friends. I was video taping all my screenings at that time to get audience reactions; I couldn’t believe anyone was screening the movie. And so I had gotten the Telluride screening on tape with Quentin’s laugh track through the whole movie.”

After shooting a 3-D picture in 2004 (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl), Rodriguez was kicking around ideas for another gimmick that would lure audiences into a theater. He came up with the idea of a double feature. Before Rodriguez could get very far, he was in post-production on Sin City, which featured a scene that he’d invited Tarantino to direct. “When I went to show him my cut of Sin City, I went to his house and laying on the floor with a bunch of other junk was a double bill poster for Rock All Night and Drag Strip Girl which was the same one I had at my house also on the floor. I was using that as inspiration for my double feature – just the layout of it. I said, ‘I got that same poster and it’s on my floor.’ This underlined how similar we were, but then I thought, ‘You know what? I had this crazy idea. I was going to do two short features but you do one and I’ll do one.’ He said, ‘I love double features! I love double features! We gotta call it Grindhouse.'”

Grindhouse 2007 poster

In the film’s production notes, Tarantino described the experience of the grindhouse. “… they were all-night theaters that would play three or four movies. It would be a place for the bums to go and sleep. If you’re hiding out from the law you’d go there for the night. Then, at six in the morning they wake you up and send you out, and you’d walk around for ninety minutes and come right back in again. Drive-ins had the same shows, but were a whole different setting. Grindhouse theaters were in more urban areas. Dallas would have grindhouses, and Houston would have grindhouses, but when you get into the outer regions of Texas, it’s more about drive-ins.” In terms of the motion picture typically offered at the grindhouse, Tarantino exclaimed, “That shit was raw. The shit was off the hook. Sexuality was wild. You couldn’t even believe some of the sexuality and brutality that they got away with in these movies, and gore. You literally had to pinch yourself and say, ‘Am I even watching what I’m watching?'”

Rodriguez had 30 pages of a zombie script he’d been doodling on for close to a decade. Makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero recalls, “I remember during Spy Kids, maybe even as early as The Faculty, that Robert said, ‘I’ve got this cool idea for this zombie movie. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet, but there’s going to be a doctor and his wife, and they’re going to be working in a hospital, and there’s going to be this really great scene where we see a girl on the road, and every time a car passes we reveal silhouettes of zombies getting closer and closer to her.'” Titled Planet Terror, Rodriguez styled his contribution to Grindhouse as a brooding B-movie John Carpenter might have directed between Escape From New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), with zombies. Sort of. Nicotero adds, “It’s a big misconception because technically they’re not zombies. They don’t die then come back, and they don’t necessarily all eat flesh. We have a couple guys that eat brains, and people get torn apart and get disemboweled, but generally they don’t really die. They just become infected and become these mindless killers.”

Grindhouse 2007 Marley Shelton Josh Brolin

To write his segment, Tarantino started virtually from scratch. “And the first idea was a bunch of young college history students that were going through a tour of the plantations of the old South. And there’s a ghost of an old slave that is part of negro folklore. Jody the Grinder actually went down and bested the devil, by fucking him. And so the devil put him on earth for all eternity to fuck white women. And that was the devil’s punishment. The opening scene would take place in the classroom, with the professor telling the story of Jody the Grinder in a big four-page monologue. I would probably have had Sam Jackson playing that part. And it was really good. But then I didn’t have anywhere to go with it, because if you have a story about a killer slave with supermacho powers done in the style of a slasher films, then even if he’s doing it today, and even if the white girls are innocent, how can you not be on the slave’s side?”

Tarantino continued, “Then I remembered a time when I told somebody I was thinking about getting a safer car. I was thinking about a Volvo and he says, ‘Oh, Quentin, if you want a safer car all you have to do is buy any car and give it to a stunt team plus $10,000 and they’ll make it death proof.’ And for two seconds I actually thought about doing that. He actually used the words ‘death proof’ but I forgot about it – this was 11 years ago. So now I’m thinking about this tale, and I thought, what if he uses a car? And what if his thing is to follow girls who travel in a posse? His car wipes the girls out and he gets to live, because it is death proof. To me he was a sex act, so what he was doing was a rape murder, his act of sex. He does it in such a way that it looks like an accident so he gets away with it. Then we wait until he recovers and, like a serial killer, he goes to another state and does it again.” Tarantino titled his segment Death Proof.

Grindhouse 2007 Rose McGowan

As far as Bob and Harvey Weinstein – co-owners of Dimension Films – were concerned, Grindhouse would cost $40 million to produce, with Rodriguez and Tarantino delivering segments running 70 minutes each. But Tarantino – who enjoyed inserting vintage trailers into grindhouse film festivals he programmed for his buddies – got directors Eli Roth and Edgar Wright involved. “They just seemed natural guys to just step into the breach, especially where their interests were concerned. Eli would make a slasher film trailer using the one holiday that hadn’t been used: Thanksgiving. And Edgar was going to do a ’70s-style British horror film trailer because he remembered that nobody opens their mouth in the trailers. You never wanted the audience to know that it’s a British movie.” Rob Zombie – directing a remake of Halloween for Dimension – also wanted in on the act. He got the go-ahead from Rodriguez to shoot a trailer based on his title alone: Werewolf Women of the S.S. The production cost for Grindhouse soon rose to $53 million.

Planet Terror commenced filming March 2006 at Troublemaker Studios, the production facility Rodriguez and then-wife Elizabeth Avellan built on the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin. Tarantino not only made a cameo appearance in Planet Terror (as Rapist #1) but filmed second unit as well. He somehow found time to direct an audition reel Josh Brolin submitted for a role in No Country For Old Men. With the intended release date of Christmas scrubbed, Tarantino began shooting Death Proof in August 2006, also around Austin. The high speed stuntwork took until January 2007 to complete, leaving Tarantino with a mere six weeks to edit his film. By chance, both Planet Terror and Death Proof would clock in at 85 minutes. This prompted the Weinsteins to suggest the directors release their segments as two separate movies, but Tarantino – who had gone along with the scheme to split his last movie (Kill Bill) into two volumes – insisted that Grindhouse would give audiences two movies for the price of one.

Grindhouse 2007 Rose McGowan

While Dimension always planned on exhibiting Planet Terror and Death Proof separately as extended versions in non-English speaking countries – where moviegoers had little idea what a double feature was – the design was always to present Grindhouse in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia as one epic theatrical experience. Headed into theaters April 2007 in the States – over the Easter holiday – Harvey Weinstein felt the picture was a throwback to the gambles he’d taken out of necessity in the early days of Miramax Films, with groundbreaking films like sex, lies and videotape, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction. “When you see it, you just say, ‘OK, you’ve got to be brain-dead not to get that one, it’s so good and fun.’ It’s the fastest three hours you ever spent in a theater. It’s an event, like a Stones concert, or The Who at Leeds. We’re asking people to go to the movies. It’s not something to watch on DVD or cable.”

Critics flew out of their pants praising Grindhouse. Nathan Lee, the Village Voice: “Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Co. aim for nothing more noble than to freak the funk, and it’s about goddamn time. Go wasted, go stoned, go without your parents’ permission. In paying homage to an obsolete form of movie culture, Grindhouse delivers a dropkick to ours.” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Grindhouse, like Ed Wood and Boogie Nights, celebrates how certain low-grade entertainment, viewed in hindsight, looks different now than it did then, since we can see the ‘innocence’ of its creation – the handmade quality of it – in a world not yet ruled by corporate technology.” Scott Foundas, L.A. Weekly: “I suspect that Death Proof will throw some of its director’s admirers for a loop, though it may be the most revealing thing Tarantino has yet done – a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses yore, as a glittering hunk of trash.”

Grindhouse 2007

But for reasons that would be debated beginning the Monday after its opening weekend, audiences stayed away from Grindhouse, which would gross a shabby $25 million in the U.S. and $25.1 million overseas. Daily Variety’s Anne Thompson offered theories galore: “What went wrong? Let’s list the ways. Grindhouse was a cult concept, with a cult following. It was the kind of movie critics praise (Metacritic gave it a very good 78) but it was beat by Ice Cube’s execrably reviewed comedy Are We Done Yet? (Metacritic ranking: 39). Many audiences said: ‘I don’t have three hours.’ The Rodriguez half of Grindhouse was for horror fans, and was far too gross for women, who might have liked the Tarantino half, which is a total female empowerment flick. My friend in Chicago who eagerly took a pal on opening day reported about 30 people in the theater. Not a good sign.”

Plans to turn Grindhouse into a franchise – with Rodriguez interested in adapting his fake trailer Machete into a feature length film – were put on hold. The Grindhouse experience now exists as two separate DVDs; Planet Terror is extended 20 minutes over its theatrical running time, while Death Proof is padded with almost 30 minutes of trivial footage. Rodriguez’s fake trailer for Machete can be found on the Planet Terror disc, but the other trailers and promos exist only on YouTube. Some observers pegged the failure of Grindhouse on the seeming inability of its filmmakers to put away their childhood obsessions, to which Tarantino mused, “I remember 25 years ago reading critics slugging on Lucas, on DePalma, on Spielberg saying these guys are so talented but they’ve dedicated their lives to recreating the junk of their childhood. I guess the same people could say that about me and Robert Rodriguez.”

Grindhouse 2007

Opinion
Grindhouse was a theater going experience like no other. Viewing Planet Terror or Death Proof on a DVD is a lot like showing up first for a party; the kegger is out, but without other guests, the event leaves something to be desired. In an era where even the decent movies resemble consumer entertainment product – to be guzzled down, tossed in the recycle bin and forgotten – almost every scene of Grindhouse beams with sincere adulation for B-movies, busting out three hours worth of intense audience appreciation. Planet Terror is the best work Robert Rodriguez has done yet. It’s loaded with a ridiculous amount of gags – my favorite is the steely eyed anesthesiologist who loses use of her arms for half the film – but aside from recapturing the ingenuity of El Mariachi, Rodriguez pulls together a complete film for once, as opposed to what feels like six or seven shorts held together by duct tape.

Death Proof provoked the usual suspects who rant “Tarantino is a hack” at the drop of a lightsaber. These are the same douche bags who can tell you shot-by-shot how Reservoir Dogs ripped off City on Fire; if they’re bitching about the length of Death Proof, they might actually have an argument this time. At 85 minutes the exhaustive banter between the girls tested my endurance, while at 113 minutes on the DVD version, the chatter becomes nearly unbearable. It’s too idle for too long, but like all master directors, Tarantino knows how to play an audience, and rewards our patience with not only the greatest car stunt sequence of all time, but the audacity to cast an actual stuntwoman (the charismatic Zoe Bell) as the lady in peril. Like the male leads in all Tarantino films, Kurt Russell gives his best performance in decades. To watch Tarantino give us his version of My Bloody Valentine or Vanishing Point – completely breaking with formula while worshipping it at the same time – is fucking exhilarating.

© Joe Valdez

Grindhouse 2007 Kurt Russell

Sources
Weinsteins ready for Grindhouse” By Anne Thompson. Variety, March 30, 2007

Filmmakers and Friends Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez Talk Grindhouse” By Rebecca Murray. About.com, March 31, 2007

Enter the Grindhouse with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez” By Steve Chupnick. MovieWeb, April 1, 2007

Grindhouse
production notes. Dimension Films, April 2007

Quentin Tarantino: Cult Hero” By Philip Berk. Film Ink, November 2007

Tarantino Bites Back” By Nick James. Sight & Sound, February 2008

Tags: Beasts and monsters · Cult favorite · End of the world · Military · Shot In Texas · Wilhelm scream · Woman in jeopardy

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Feb 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Joe,
    Thanks so much for participating. I will be posting a link to this great post shortly. Coincidently I am finishing up a tribute to Roth’s Thanksgiving, which I will be posting today or tomorrow. Thanks again!

  • 2 Neil Fulwood // Feb 15, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Fantastic article, one of your best yet I think.

    Here in the UK, we were denied the experience of ‘Grindhouse’ as a single bigscreen outing. I remember when ‘Death Proof’ opened, ‘Planet Terror’ didn’t even have a UK release date confirmed. I managed to get hold of a Region 1 DVD of ‘Planet Terror’ and staged my own ‘Grindhouse’ event as best I could, watching ‘Planet Terror’ and the ‘Machete’ trailer on DVD, downloading the Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth trailers online then going to see ‘Death Proof’ on the big screen.

    The do-it-yourself aspect was fun, but I’d still love to see both films in their 85-minute cuts, back-to-back.

  • 3 Rachel // Feb 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I saw Grindhouse at a free screening 3 days before its release and had the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater…well, maybe tied with the LOTR Trilogy Tuesday in ’03.

    I was absolutely devastated when I found out they were breaking the films up and releasing them separately, and have since refused to rent the dvds individually. If I had known this at the time of the film’s release, I would’ve seen it more than once in the theater for sure.

    Now, almost 2 years later, with most of both films slipping further from my memory’s graspy, I’ve gleefully discovered that Netflix is showing the entire experience on their Watch Instantly option. At least this is how it’s advertised. So this weekend, I plan on pulling up a seat in front of my computer, and refreshing my memory of a pretty sweet double feature that left me in jaw-dropping awe back in 2007.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Feb 17, 2009 at 5:03 am

    I was convinced that the DVD release in the UK would unite the two original halves and the trailers, but no such luck. I came closest to the original experience when the Prince Charles Cinema (a cheap — not quite grindhouse — repertory cinema) showed the two films as a double feature. Unfortunately these were the padded out versions and it really required more effort than the original three-hour movie would have demanded.

    My take on the two: Tarantino’s contribution is bloated — I can think of no better description, but I found the Rodriguez movie to be a lot of fun, Then again I’m a sucker for horror movies, even minor ones.

  • 5 Hedwig // Feb 19, 2009 at 6:57 am

    I actually was in NY in June of 2007, for four days… and I managed to convince my dad and brother to spend half a day in the last cinema still playing Grindhouse, and I’ve never regretted it. It was the perfect setting for it: in the Village, with about 40 seats, and a kind of dilapidated feel, while the rain poured down outside. It was a great experience, and I’m still pissed that instead of just blaming their marketing strategy and adopting it, they released the two movies separately here in Europe.

    I have to say: I’m of two minds concerning the longer version of Death Proof. I like some of the added scenes (especially the black and white start of the second part), but others are wholly superfluous, and 2 hours IS too long for this story. I did cave and buy it on DVD though. I just wish they’d also put the shorter version on there.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Feb 19, 2009 at 8:20 am

    Jeremy: After Hostel: Part II, Eli Roth became possibly the most hated director since Brian DePalma made Scarface, but I caught it on cable recently and thought it was pretty good. I dig the hell out of Roth’s fake trailer Thanksgiving and remember it getting the biggest laugh of all the trailers. Anything involving both Jordan Ladd and Vendula Bednarova has my approval anyway. Thanks for sponsoring this fantastic series of lost films.

    Neil: Thanks so much for that compliment. I recall reading – after the disappointing box office take in the States – that the Weinsteins were thinking about splitting Grindhouse in half overseas, but wasn’t sure whether that occurred in the U.K. or not. Apparently, it did. Your jerry-rigged Grindhouse fest sounds like fun, but audiences deserve to see this spectacular film as Rodriguez & Tarantino intended and that is at 191 minutes straight through.

    Rachel: From a woman who loves Tarantino films so much that she just named her firstborn “Mia,” I was curious what your reaction to Grindhouse would be. I had a ball watching it in a theater as well, although there were walk-outs after Planet Terror. Dimension really needed to roll this out like an art film in small theaters and colleges, building word of mouth of how unique it was and why not to leave after the first hour and a half. Thanks so much for commenting. Enjoy the Grindhouse experience on your computer!

    Patricia: The all mighty marketplace returned its verdict on Grindhouse, so I am not surprised that the hucksters at Dimension just want this whole bad experience to go away. I would have loved it if the studio had put half the effort into a DVD that Fox did with Fight Club, but it really doesn’t surprise me either. Along with Paramount, Miramax are the most clueless lot out there when it comes to marketing its library on DVD. Thanks for commenting and for keeping the Prince Charles Cinema in business.

    Hedwig: Your Greenwich Village peep show experience sounds like a family memory you will treasure for years. I wish Grindhouse had been a roadshow with Tarantino going from college town to college town presenting the film and generating word of mouth. I don’t know; this strategy didn’t exactly translate into mega bucks for Serenity, but I think it’s the right approach for this type of film. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts with the class!

  • 7 Christian // Mar 2, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    GRINDHOUSE was my favorite film of 2007, one of the best times ever in a theater. I saw it three times. I do think it should have been a breathless 90 minutes. But I love the whole feel of the film. I just posted my entire nine-day account of Tarantino’s QT 3 fest at the Alamo in 1999, which was like the extended version of KILL BILL and GRINDHOUSE…

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