Drive-in Saturday night

Is *Grindhouse *a running gagfest or eye-popping joy?

When the goal is to honor schlock, the filmmaking bar is set low. Hence, to say Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse delivers the goods is a backhanded compliment.

If your college film course overlooked slasher, splatter, mondo, biker and sexploitation flicks, you might be excused for not knowing the oeuvre. For those of us who actually remember scuzzball theaters with side-aisle smoking sections and screenings cut short by a "missing reel" title card, this seedy stroll down memory alley will elicit equal doses of groans, nostalgia and chuckles.

With its pus-filled zombies, go-go dancers, screaming car crashes, wooden dialogue and healthy dose of T&A, Grindhouse brings yesteryear's cheap and sleazy flicks to today's modern, shiny multiplexes. Less a movie and more an experience in mood, intent and style, this double-feature retro exercise is an elaborate cinematic gag; albeit one that's too long and hard for some audiences to get.

First up is Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a pulpy mash-up of Roger Corman sci-fi and George Romero zombiefest that's consciously tasteless but, until its final half hour, rarely boring.

Rose McGowan plays go-go dancer Cherry Darling, the hottest thing on two, and then one, leg. Teamed with her bad-boy ex, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), she struggles to flee a town full of infected zombies hungry for human flesh. Along with an eccentric cast of survivors (some in hot pants and halters!), she retreats to the local BBQ joint to fend off the oozing masses ... but not before losing a leg. With guns blazing and heads bursting, our heroes defeat the mutant onslaught only to fall into the arms of a military bio-weapon conspiracy. Logic and realism? Nah.

Rodriguez crams his mad splatter gagfest (both meanings of the word) with enough sensationalism for 10 flicks: A jealous doctor stalks his sexpot wife with hypodermic needles, a psychotic scientist collects his enemy's testicles in a jar, helicopter blades burst zombies like blood-filled water balloons and Cherry gets outfitted with the sexiest prosthetic machine-gun leg you'll ever see. It's a Fangoria fanboy's wet dream. Digitally shot but processed with film scratches and breaks, Rodriguez's seamy film fantasy is filled with a supporting cast of C-movie icons and a synth soundtrack that'd do John Carpenter proud.

Planet Terror pushes the envelope with cool imagery and balls-to-the-wall violence, but Rodriguez is trying too hard. While gorehounds will dig the carnage, the storytelling — never his strong suit — suffers from poorly written characters and dialogue. Such elements are beside the point, but iconic horror-cheapies like Night of the Comet and Reanimator balanced low-rent thrills with sharp writing. In all its audacity, Planet Terror is glorious trash — you feel guilty about enjoying it then quickly forget.

A trio of fake movie trailers split Grindhouse's two features, and are, arguably, the best part of the show. Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS hits the target, Eli Roth's (Hostel) too-disgusting-to-believe Thanksgiving and Edgar Wright's (Shaun Of The Dead) hilarious Brit psycho-horror don pierces the bloody bull's-eye. Their three-minute spoofs are note-perfect masterpieces of cheesy mayhem.

Which brings us to Tarantino's Death Proof, a schizophrenic attempt to blend the car-chase machismo of Gone in 60 Seconds with the psycho-stalker chills of The Hitcher. Again, it's too long and stumbles over its long-winded dialogue. But this avenging-angel thriller impresses with its effects-free car stunts.

Divided into two vignettes, Death Proof first follows a gaggle of chatty party chicks hanging out and smoking weed. They meet scarred and aging stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who's initially harmless but turns out to be a sadistic lunatic who uses his menacing muscle car to brutally destroy his victims. After a half-hour of dialogue that recalls bad Kevin Smith, Tarantino knocks us on our asses with a bone-rattling collision that replays repeatedly to illustrate its disturbing carnage.

Cut to the second vignette. Another quartet of giggling girls shoot the shit and pine for true love while stuntman Mike lurks in the background. The banter is improved but hardly on par with Tarantino's best. These women are made of sterner stuff than those in the first scene; and two are stuntwomen. (Real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell — playing herself — astonishes with her hood-hanging moves.) When Mike moves in, he quickly learns he's picked the wrong chicks to fuck with. One eyeball-popping car-chase leads to another and Tarantino nails you to your seat every high-speed second of it.

Though the women come off as witless mouthpieces for the director's pop culture fetishes, Russell is another example of the director's genius for casting. Tossing off the film's best lines with a folksy menace, he channels his Snake Plissken (Escape From New York) and Jack Burton (Big Trouble in Little China).

Tarantino and Rodriguez are visionary directors who purposely wear influences on their sleeves. Their idiosyncratic obsessions have produced some exciting, if not entirely successful, work. With Grindhouse, both reveal keen understandings of lowbrow-cinema language but fail to create something iconic. It's what you'd expect from Rodriguez — a guy more interested in technology than narrative. With Tarantino, however, it's a surprise. Unlike his Kill Bill movies, which simultaneously elevated and paid homage to their chop-socky origins, Death Proof misses the heart of Uma Thurman's righteous quest; the murderous desire of a mother yearning for her child. As a result, Tarantino ends up adding an interesting footnote to a forgotten genre.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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