Grindhouse: A surprisingly uneven experience in vanity

In the middle of Robert Rodriguez's apocalyptic zombie film Planet Terror, one half of the double-feature experience called Grindhouse, released on Friday, there's a catch-your-breath moment after about an hour of girls, guns and guts. Cherry (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who recently lost a leg to a pack of zombies, is getting frisky with Ray (Freddy Rodriguez), her on-again, off-again lover. They've discovered a bachelor pad in the back of this sweaty, rundown barbeque pit and are taking full advantage of the amenities.

Just as the naked Cherry and Ray are about to have what looks to be raunchy, nasty sex, the scratchy print catches in the projector, burns through and stops. A slide on the screen says the management of the theater apologizes for the inconvenience, and a beat later the film restarts with the barbeque joint in the throes of a raging inferno and the non-zombie humans retreating inside after a disastrous attack on the flesh-eaters.

While this moment might be extremely frustrating for viewers looking forward to sexual content, it's an inspired moment of homage from Rodriguez to the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and '80s and how the prints, when played in dirty, scummy theaters dubbed "grindhouses," would routinely be beat-to-Hell with some of the best parts missing.

Fast-forward to Quentin Tarantino's psycho-killing-chest-twentysomethings film Death Proof, the second half of the double feature. Near the midpoint of that film, a group of girls led by Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) are hanging out in an Austin juke joint. While out on the porch smoking pot, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a stranger with an old muscle car adorned with a skull-and-bones, is trying to score a lap dance from Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito).

After some posturing, and some coercing, Butterfly, who has had a lot to drink, is ready to give Stuntman Mike his thrill. Like in Planet Terror, the film cuts off and a slide proclaiming "Reel Missing" appears onscreen. When Death Proof restarts, the girls are all best friends with Stuntman Mike and, by all accounts, Butterfly gave him one hell of a lap dance.

Unlike Planet Terror, though, this moment in Death Proof feels forced, fake and somewhat ironic. Tarantino and Rodriguez teamed up on Grindhouse as a way to pay homage to those schlocky horror films and thrillers from 20 and 30 years ago, but Rodriguez is the only one who really goes for it.

Planet Terror is a zombie movie that takes place in 2007, but if you take out the PDAs, cell phones and computes, you could easily think it was made in 1977. The gore is disgusting but obviously fake (make-up artist Greg Nicotero taps into the creative forces he used in George Romero's Dead movies). The print has copious scratches and cigarette burns (those little blips that pop up in the top right corner of the screen), and there are a few moments when the film looks washed out or just nanoseconds from jumping out of the projector's gate.

Death Proof, on the other hand, is, frankly, a Tarantino movie. There's a lot of talking and pontificating about everything from what girl is nailing what director to why Vanishing Point is a great film. There are two long dialogue scenes, the first in a car, the other in a cafeteria, and they feel like Tarantino's greatest hits package (there are similar scenes in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, respectively). Stuntman Mike is a menacing, but he's hardly in the film. (When he is, though, Russell steals the show. There's a moment during the lap dance coaxing where he channels John Wayne that’s inspired.) There are scratches and such on the print, but they're hardly noticeable. Worst of all, though, when Tarantino tries to make Death Proof feel like a grindhouse film, his efforts fall flat, the results feeling forced and, in the case of the missing reel, ironic.

That feeling of irony permeates the entire Grindhouse experience. And make no mistake, this is an experience. There are fake trailers for films like Werewolf Women of the S.S. (by Rob Zombie), Don't (by Edgar Wright) and Thanksgiving (by Eli Roth), as well as retro-style commercials and bumpers before the films for coming attractions. With some exceptions, at the conclusion of the three-hour-plus experiment, you're left with a sense that these filmmakers have wink-wink-nudge-nudged their way through what was supposed to be a loving tribute.

Roth's trailer, for example, shows copious amount of naked boobies and grotesque violence (as is his trademark). At one point, for example, a cheerleader jumping topless on a trampoline, jumps up and does a split. As she's about to land, the slasher killer in the trailer thrusts his knife through the bottom of the trampoline so that when she lands her split she, well, you get the idea. There's also a shot at the end of that same trailer where the killer has a family tied up, their relative cooked like a turkey on the table, and the killer is having anal sex with the charred remains of another person.

Besides being vile and misanthropic beyond comparison, this kind of trailer would never be shown in the grindhouse era. It's totally incongruous with the trailers from the '70s and '80s, and it's done, seemingly, because it could be. If Grindhouse was really about recreating the grindhouse experience, everyone should have bought into the idea and such ironic indulgence shouldn't have been allowed.

Ultimately, Grindhouse must be judged on its ability to deliver on its promise. While both Rodriguez and Tarantino deliver fine films, work that deserves to be shown as complete pieces, their parts are greater than the sum. As films, Planet Terror and Death Proof are entertaining creations. As an experience, Grindhouse is a wasteful indulgence.