The essence of “Grindhouse,” Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s exuberant, uneven tribute to the spirit of trash cinema, is distilled in a scene from “Death Proof,” Mr. Tarantino’s feature-length contribution to the project. Two vintage American muscle cars, already scuffed and dented from chasing each other along back roads and two-lane blacktops, descend, engines whining and tires squealing, onto a highway full of late-model minivans, S.U.V.’s and family sedans, all of them driving safely within the lines and the speed limit.
Kurt Russel and his killer car terrorize in “Death Proof,” Quentin Tarantino’s entry in the “Grindhouse” double feature.
It’s a great car chase, but it’s also a metaphor. “Grindhouse,” soaked in bloody nostalgia for the cheesy, disreputable pleasures of an older form of movie entertainment, can also be seen as a passionate protest against the present state of the entertainment industry. Those Detroit relics, modified with loving care in someone’s garage or backyard, may waste gas and burn oil, but they seem to have an individuality — a soul — that the homogeneous new vehicles, with their G.P.S. and their cruise control, their computer chips and their air bags, can never hope to match.
And “Grindhouse” argues, with more enthusiasm than coherence, for the integrity of a certain kind of old movie. Not the stuff that finds its way into the Classics section of the video store, but the kind that the guys behind the counter are always talking about: cheap, nasty slasher films, sleazy sexploitation pictures, gimcrack sci-fi epics starring people you never heard of. Just about anything, in short, with the right combination of topless women, gory, pointless violence and inspired amateurism. Also car chases.
Really, though, what Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Tarantino try to evoke is less a particular style or genre of moviemaking than a lost ambience of moviegoing. “Grindhouse” consists of a double feature (“Death Proof” preceded by Mr. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror”) accompanied by trailers for nonexistent coming attractions (with titles like “Machete” and “Werewolf Women of the SS”) and beset by technical difficulties. Each of the features is missing a reel — the management apologizes for the inconvenience — and of course it’s the reel with the sex in it, which the projectionist probably stole for his own amusement. The prints are full of scratches, bad splices and busted sprocket holes, and the images are not always in focus.
It’s all a pretty good joke, especially since most of these glitches, artifacts of an earlier technological era, have been produced digitally. (Unfortunately the software application has not yet been developed that can simulate clouds of stale cigarette smoke in the projector beam, broken seats and sticky, smelly floors at your local multiplex.) The filmmakers are at once bad boys and grumpy old men, effortlessly adept at manipulating new-fangled gadgets even as they sigh over the way things were in the good old days.
Their approach is both broadly populist and fussily esoteric. It doesn’t take a cinephile to appreciate, say, the sight of Rose McGowan in skimpy go-go dancer get-up, or to be repulsed by the spectacle of zombies with melting, pustulant faces feasting on human flesh. But the obsessive crosshatching of allusion, spoof and homage that gives “Grindhouse” its texture is the product of a highly refined generational sensibility.
Young people who see this movie — in the spirit of the thing, they should ideally sneak in during school hours — might do well to seek out a 45-year-old underemployed bachelor with a large DVD and comic book collection who can help them parse the basics (“What’s a reel, Uncle Quentin?”) and the more advanced material as well.
That Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Tarantino are motivated by a sincere love of the movies they send up can hardly be doubted, but the affection is expressed in different ways. Mr. Rodriguez revels in badness for its own sake. “Planet Terror” is intoxicated by its own absurdity; it tries to raise incompetence to the level of craft, if not art. The random close-ups, the lurching cuts, the off-kilter framing — all of this is obviously intentional. So is the hodgepodge story, which is like a stew made of the contents of every can in the cupboard.
Ms. McGowan plays Cherry Darling, a hard-luck go-go dancer. She reunites with an old boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez), who turns out to be a notorious gunslinger. They team up with a bunch of other townspeople — we’re somewhere in Texas — to fight off rampaging zombies (including Bruce Willis and Mr. Tarantino, who also has a small role in “Death Proof”). The zombies have been infected by a virus, and the only hope for a cure is. …
But that’s enough of that. Sensation trumps sense in “Planet Terror,” especially once Ms. McGowan, who has lost a leg in a car accident, has been outfitted with a machine-gun prosthesis. It’s certainly eye-catching, but “Planet Terror” is a joke that goes on for too long without much purpose beyond its own frantic inventiveness. Its sloppiness is a trait it shares not only with obscure horror movies (many of which were much more rigorously executed), but also with some of Mr. Rodriguez’s other films. His energy, in movies like “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and the later “Spy Kids” installments, has often outstripped his taste. Not only does he like bad movies, he has a habit of making them too.
Mr. Tarantino is another story — a connoisseur, a scholar and a bit of a highbrow. Not a snob though. Quite the opposite: He combs through trash in search of art and has done a lot to teach American audiences (and critics) to appreciate the formal seriousness and aesthetic sophistication of, for example, Asian action movies. “Death Proof” is in part a sincere tribute to the work of Monte Hellman, whose films have ascended from the fetor of their low-rent origins into the purer air of art houses and museum retrospectives, which is where they belong. Mr. Hellman was always a serious filmmaker, and Mr. Tarantino is too.
At a certain point in “Death Proof” the scratches and bad splices disappear, and you find yourself watching not an arch, clever pastiche of old movies and movie theaters but an actual movie. You are not laughing at deliberately clumsy camera work but rather admiring the grace and artistry of the shots — in particular a long take in which the camera circles around a group of women talking in a diner. At his best — in parts of “Pulp Fiction,” in “Jackie Brown,” in sections of “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” — Mr. Tarantino strips away the quotation marks and finds a route through his formal virtuosity and his encyclopedic knowledge of film history back to the basics of character, action and story.
“Death Proof” is a decidedly modest picture, fittingly enough given its second billing in this double feature. But its scaled-down ambition is part of its appeal. It consists of long stretches of talk — the rambling, profane banter that is Mr. Tarantino’s hallmark as a writer — interrupted by kinetic bouts of automotive mayhem.
The verbal and visceral elements have no organic connection, and the plot is booby-trapped with surprises. I’m hesitant to risk giving away too much, but I will say that Kurt Russell is awfully good, and that I could listen to Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Tracie Thoms, two of the movie’s motor-mouthed heroines, talk through the whole three hours of “Grindhouse,” read the phone book or recite “The Faerie Queene” on tape in my Volvo in the middle of a traffic jam.
I’m not sure I’d sit through “Planet Terror” again to get to them in “Death Proof” though. Of course, in the old days, true grindhouse devotees would wander in and out of the theater all day long. I guess DVD’s serve a similar function in our own time. In any case be sure not to miss the trailer for “Thanksgiving” — not for the squeamish or the humor impaired, and not that you’d necessarily want to see the movie, if it existed. Also, when viewing “Grindhouse” at home skip the commentary track and bring in a few drunks off the street to mutter and snore. It’ll be just like the old days.
“Grindhouse” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Tell your mother you were over at your friend’s house doing homework, and be sure to tell your friends at school about the severed limbs, the exploding heads and the naked you-know-whats.
“Planet Terror” written and directed by Robert Rodriguez; director of photography, Mr. Rodriguez; edited by Mr. Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis; production designers, Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; produced by Mr. Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan. “Death Proof” produced, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Mr. Tarantino; edited by Sally Menke; production designers, Mr. Joyner and Ms. Eddleblute. Released by Dimension Films. Running time: 180 minutes.
“PLANET TERROR” WITH: Rose McGowan (Cherry), Marley Shelton (Dr. Dakota Block), Freddy Rodriguez (Wray), Josh Brolin (Block), Jeff Fahey (JT), Michael Biehn (Sherriff Hague), Naveen Andrews (Abby) and Stacy Ferguson (Tammy).
“DEATH PROOF” WITH: Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike), Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Jungle Julia), Vanessa Ferlito (Arlene), Jordan Ladd (Shanna), Tracie Thoms (Kim), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy), Zoë Bell (Zoë), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee), Rose McGowan (Pam), Eli Roth (Dov) and Omar Doom (Nate).