Major Spoilers for Death Proof

Grindhouse is a strange entity. Its two halves are Planet Terror, as directed by Dreck Fiction favorite Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Both are homages to an earlier time, earlier genres, and earlier attitudes. It’s critical consensus that while Planet Terror is the truer half, as it’s fun and creatively gory, Death Proof is the better film. In my opinion, they’re both surpassed by the film from years earlier, From Dusk Till Dawn, which was the spiritual predecessor to Grindhouse (just check out every review of the movie ever written, and you’ll find people jumping all over it for being two movies in one). I do think that on the whole Planet Terror is more fun, and that’s the one that I chose to have on the Blu-ray Disc. I guess you can only have one.

That’s another problem with Grindhouse; because one of the major criticisms of fans was that it was too long, which seems rather imbecilic, the home release was split up into two movies. Rather than having Grindhouse on DVD and PSP we have Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror and Grindhouse Presents Death Proof, I believe. Nowhere except for on the Internet can the fake trailers be located. At least, they aren’t on Planet Terror‘s disc, aside from Machete, which remains better than the expanded version by ten miles.

Death Proof, just like its parent in Grindhouse, is a strange entity. It too is split up into two movies, or at least, we have two major groups of characters in two separate plotlines. The first, which drags, follows around potential victims of serial killer Stuntman Mike. Most of the action takes place in the bar, and invariably, these characters – four girls – are overshadowed and outdone by the surprise faces in the bar like Eli Roth and of course, Quentin Tarantino. QT is found playing the one role he always plays, perhaps the role he was meant to play – some scheezy guy.

Once this segment is out of the way we’re introduced immediately to a group of girls that are most interesting in every way. Among them is Rosario Dawson, who I’ve always been enamored of, and who’s kind of a cult favorite after movies like Sin City and Clerks 2. We also see Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mentioned earlier in the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World review. She plays a much different character here.

In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World she plays a darker, more broken character. Yet she is in a comedy film. Here, in this horror/comedy, she is the comic relief. We’re supposed to laugh at her because she’s too damn happy, too dumb, too girly. The disparity between Lee in Death Proof and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really speaks to a subtle acting prowess – she’s entirely convincing in both roles, yet one appears very distracted and sunny, and the other is serious and more complex.

Lee plays a significant role, just as all the other girls in the film do. This is a movie about females, about female empowerment and film postmodernism. Death Proof overall is about Quentin Tarantino, and his DJ stylings – he takes characters from the mythology of film and mixes and matches. Here we find a serial killer from a Wes Craven slasher movie – but the twist is that he’s out of place. We have a commentary on the passing of time in film as enhanced by the theme of female progression. The ultimate triumph in the story is of girls over the slasher, and this happens only after the slasher’s been taken out of his 70’s environment, where he has the power to kill Rose McGowan and all the other girls of the first group.

In order to arrive at that point we need to experience the various female cliches and archetypes established by earlier movies. Lee’s character is summarized in her appearance – despite being an actor playing an actor, she’s the cheerleader. She is nothing other than the cheerleader, thus she’s happy, dumb, and girly. Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are the adrenaline junkies – sort of the idealized strong woman in Quentin Tarantino’s eye. Zoe Bell plays herself, and was a real surprise. When we first see her she’s this Australian chick with the cute accent and a sunny face, but as it turns out, she’s the biggest adrenaline freak of them all; she’s the one who gets on top of the speeding Dodge Challenger to duel Stuntman Mike’s death proof car.

The cheerleader gets left behind, which is an uncomfortable moment in the movie (not as uncomfortable as the lap dance however, which is retained in full for the DVD release [allegedly in theatres Tarantino slipped in the ‘missing reel’ gag over it]), and we only have the strong women to overcome the slasher.

The other group of girls were manipulative and got drunk all the time – really the opposite of role models. As we learned in that YouTube video, something like “Tarantino PWNS some woman named Jane,” QT believes that the girls he depicts on screen are women that little girls should not only be watching (all of his movies have been hard-Rs) but taking after. That’s what Kill Bill was all about. These girls however, don’t have it in them to overcome the baddy.

And what a badguy; Stuntman Mike was perfectly cast here, and it follows the theme of postmodern filmmaking. What do we remember Kurt Russell for? We remember him for two movies – Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, two of the most iconic Carpenter flicks around, in a filmography filled with icons of cinema. The characters of Snake Plissken and Jack Burton reinvented the hero by being A-grade badass and A-grade clumsy respectively.

Stuntman Mike, twenty or so years later, is purely evil. The badass still remains, but it’s a new take on a familiar face; not something we’re used to. This shake-and-bake* approach to genre filmmaking is rare and it’s something that if overdone would get old, like the documentary approach for District 9 (fingers crossed Elysium will be different), but that’s why Quentin Tarantino is one-of-a-kind, and this is a good thing.

Tarantino rip-offs are usually always a bad idea; The Boondock Saints for example stands out, which needed to take more cues from Rodriguez than QT, and he makes these glorified B movies with the artistry and skill of a master. No, he’s not one of the A-list directors like the Spielbergs and Jacksons of the world, but he’s a niche filmmaker who can do niche things that have only really recently taken on wide popularity, as we’ll see next.

Death Proof is the deeper half of Grindhouse, which itself is a great movie. Watch Planet Terror to see Rodriguez go nuts with an excellent cast and extreme effects, and watch Death Proof for what is truly the truer grindhouse flick.

Planet Terror plays it safe in terms of its homage; it’s a cheapo exploitative movie with a budget (like the equally brainless Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn), so it’s something new, but retains the staples of what we think of when we think of exploitation: nudity, guns, blood, and visual quality that appears to tear at the seams. It celebrates the feel of grindhouse cinema, which can’t be pegged for a specific genre but a range – certain kung fu movies are considered grindhouse, as were blaxploitation and sci-fi movies and of course, those infamous women in chains movies.

On the other hand Death Proof celebrates the chase movies and slasher movies by reinventing them, by combining them and seeing what fits. It may not be a perfect movie – like I said the first half drags like the knuckles of Cro-Magnon Man [sigh] but the noted chase scene at the end was really rather exhilarating, and meant something. The final shot of the movie is just perfect, and the second group of girls really embody the strong-woman archetype that Tarantino began to observe with his magnum opus, continued through Death Proof, and stopped with Inglourious Basterds. I really didn’t give a fuck about Shoshanna, but we’ll get there.

Celebration was the goal here, to pay homage to an earlier age in film. As only Quentin Tarantino can however, he also pushed forward.

*Is that gay?