Grindhouse is one of the most influential box office failures of the 21st century. Despite grossing a paltry $25.4 million at the box office on a budget of around $60 million, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 love letter to exploitation cinema has managed to spawn four spin-off movies — Machete, Machete Kills, Hobo with a Shotgun, and now Thanksgiving— in addition to reintroducing a vintage aesthetic that has been mimicked by countless other throwback movies.
Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof each have their merits — the former plays like a satirical pastiche of nonstop action, while the latter is more indicative of genuine exploitation fare — but Grindhouse is more than just a double feature. It’s an experience, complete with faux aging to recreate the look of beat-up film prints along with vintage interstitials and retro-inspired trailers for nonexistent movies.
Planet Terror is the first part of the double bill, feeling something like The Return of the Living Dead meets Universal Soldier directed by John Carpenter for Cannon Films. Rodriguez leans into ’80s camp with over-the-top action, spontaneous explosions, and splattery gore that marries practical effects by Greg Nicotero & Howard Berger of KNB EFX (Scream, From Dusk Till Dawn) with digital aid.
It follows Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan, Scream), a rural Texas go-go dancer in need of a dramatic change in life. She gets just that when her ex, El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under), replaces her missing leg with an assault rifle to fend off against the living dead. In an homage to low-budget films that would advertise name actors who only appear in a few scenes, Bruce Willis plays Lt. Muldoon, the evil mastermind behind the plot that only required two days of shooting with limited interactions with other characters.
The stacked ensemble also includes Josh Brolin (Avengers: Endgame) and Marley Shelton (Scream 4) as husband-and-wife doctor duo William and Dakota Black, pop star Fergie as Dakota’s secret lover, Michael Biehn (The Terminator) as the local sheriff, Jeff Fahey (Lost) as a BBQ baron, Naveen Andrews (Lost) as a testicle-collecting scientist, special effects legend Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) and Carlos Gallardo (El Mariachi) as deputies, Michael Parks reprising his role as Earl McGraw from From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill, and Tarantino as Rapist #1.
Death Proof closes out the double feature, blending motifs from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Vanishing Point, and Halloween. True to its grindhouse roots, the movie features long stretches of characters hanging out interrupted by spurts of excitement. Patience is rewarded, as those moments — a trio of breathtaking car stunt sequences — hit especially hard.
Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a washed up stunt driver who preys on young women with his killer car. The first half is rooted in slasher tropes, with the vehicular murderer stalking then dispatching a group of girls. Later, Stuntman Mike meets his match in the form of stunt woman Zoë Bell (Kill Bill, Xena: Warrior Princess) — playing a fictionalized version of herself — and her friends.
Another impressive cast, the women of Death Proof include Rosario Dawson (Sin City), Tracie Thoms (Rent), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Vanessa Ferlito (CSI: NY), Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Knight Rider), Jordan Ladd (Cabin Fever), and McGowan. It also features Tarantino as a bartender, Eli Roth, Omar Doom (Inglourious Basterds), and writer Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as sketchy bros trying to score, and Parks as McGraw again.
The mock trailers include Machete, Rodriguez’s Death Wish-style revenge tale starring Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn) and Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong); Werewolf Women of the SS, Rob Zombie’s Nazisploitation send-up with a werewolf twist featuring Udo Kier (Blade), Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), and Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu; Don’t, Edgar Wright’s Lucio Fulci-esque tribute to Euro-horror with narration by Will Arnett (Arrested Development); and Thanksgiving, Eli Roth’s crass take on late ’70s/early ’80s holiday slashers.
Just in time for the feature version of Thanksgiving, Grindhouse has received a four-disc, region-free Blu-ray set from Australia’s Via Vision Entertainment. Limited to 2,000, it features the theatrical version of Grindhouse, the extended cuts of Planet Terror and Death Proof, a bonus disc loaded with special features, and eight art cards, all packaged in a lenticular slipcase. Grindhouse is presented with DTS HD 5.1 Surround and LPCM 2.0 Stereo sound options, while Planet Terror and Death Proof feature Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio.
The extended cuts of each feature — the 105-minute version of Planet Terror and the 113-minute version of Death Proof — fill in some narrative gaps and flesh out character arcs, but the truncated versions in the Grindhouse cut (running a total of 191 minutes) benefit from snappier pacing. Moreover, the restoration of Planet Terror‘s “missing reel” in the extended cut robs it of one of Grindhouse‘s best gags.
Planet Terror offers a “scratch free” version sans faux aging, which is an interesting footnote but not the version I’d opt for. More appealing is Planet Terror‘s audience reaction audio track, which amplifies the grindhouse atmosphere with cheers and screams. I wish the option extended to the rest of the film to further enhance the event. Rodriguez provides a commentary on his half, pointing out the divergences between the cuts, detailing his work on the Carpenter-inspired score, and doing a convincing Willis impression. Roth and co-writer Jeff Rendell do a Thanksgiving commentary, explaining how they shot it at the end of Hostel: Part II‘s production in Prague.
The bonus disc carries a whopping five hours of special features. The New York Times’ hour-long TimesTalk event with Rodriguez and Tarantino, hosted by NYT’s Lynn Hirschberg, is a fascinating supplement, although an appearance by Harvey Weinstein ends it on a sour note. The San Diego Comic-Con 2006 panel with Rodriguez, Tarantino, McGowan, Shelton, Dawson, Poitier, Winstead, and Bell is a fun, if too brief at 22 minutes, watch. Interestingly, it took place after Rodriguez wrapped but before Tarantino started shooting.
Planet Terror extras include: “10 Minute Film School,” a streamlined making-of piece in which Rodriguez provides commentary on how the special effects and stunts were accomplished; featurettes on the cast, stunts, makeup effects; “Casting Rebel,” about Rodriguez working with his young son, including shooting alternate footage in which he survives to spare him the trauma; “The Friend, the Doctor, and the Real Estate Agent,” explores the casting of Rodriguez’s his real-life friend Tommy Nix, doctor Felix Sabates, and realtor Skip Reissig; “10 Minute Cooking School,” in which Rodriguez shares his award-winning Texas BBQ recipe; and a gallery of posters and lobby cards.
Death Proof extras include: “Stunts on Wheels,” detailing the all-practical, death-defying car stunts; featurettes dedicated to Russell, Bell, the cast, cars, and production design; “Quentin’s Greatest Collaborator,” a compilation of various cast members shouting out to editor Sally Menke in outtakes; the trailer for Double Dare, a documentary on Bell featuring Tarantino; Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s full performance of “Baby, It’s You;” two extended music cues (“Gangster Story” by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis and “Italia a Mano Armata” by Franco Micalizzi); and a lobby card gallery.
Trailer extras include: an extended, five-minute version of Werewolf Women of the SS with optional commentary by Zombie; an extended, 95-second version of Don’t with optional commentary by Wright; making-of featurettes for Werewolf Women of the SS, Don’t, and Thanksgiving; Don’t storyboard/trailer comparison with optional Wright commentary; Don’t storyboard gallery; the extended Don’t score by David Arnold (Independence Day, Hot Fuzz); and Jason Eisener’s contest-winning Hobo with a Shotgun mock trailer that accompanied the film’s Canadian release.
Grindhouse is more than the sum of its parts. Planet Terror is a pure crowd-pleaser, nonsensical though it may be. Death Proof is commonly considered a lesser work in the Tarantino oeuvre, and while that’s difficult to dispute given the highs he’s reached, the auteur is incapable of making a bad movie. In classic double feature fashion, the films represent different subsets of exploitation cinema, while the mock trailers and faux aging heighten the unique experience. With everything in one package, Via Vision’s set is the definitive version — at least until a 4K UHD comes along.