Grindhouse Is Girls, Guns, Cars — But No Sex

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Rico Torres / Dimension Films

Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson is Tammy in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror/Grindhouse.

Walking to a preview screening last week of Grindhouse, I got a whiff (fetid, of course) of the exploitation-movie past. The screening was on 12th Street in Manhattan's East Village, and my walk took me along 14th Street past a prime grind house, the Metropolitan Theatre — or rather past the hole in the ground where the Metropolitan once stood. There used to be a film stills shop next door: Movie Star News, whose proprietor, Irving Klaw, supplemented his income by making and selling films of bondage princess Bettie Page.

That was in the '50s. By the '70s the Metropolitan had become a showcase for hard-core, and that refers to both the film fare and the clientele. As recalled by Jimmy McDonough, the Suetonius of sleaze, the Metropolitan was "a cavernous, ancient ex-vaudeville hall where customers searching for strange flesh skulked through a dark, Lysol-doused passageway hidden behind a flickering screen of endless porno."

Kids looking for cinematic transgression today have to get it on on the screen. Modern theaters are just boxes with movies inside. They are to the vanished grind houses what the Disney-dressed-up 42nd Street is to the old, disreputable Deuce.

So you'll just have to imagine the acrid smell, the seats with arms missing, the enthusiastic shouts or sometimes combative rants of the faithful. Everything else, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and their retro-hip posse mean to supply: a double feature — two 90 min. movies, Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof — plus four "prevues of coming attractions" from Rodriguez, Rob Zombie (Werewolf Women of the SS), Edgar Wright (the very funny Don't Scream) and Eli Roth (the even better horror holiday Thanksgiving).

To give the movie a suitably antique look, the directors have simulated scratches and streaks on the image, the occasional flutter of the faux-nitrate in the imaginary gate and, in each feature, a sign supplied by "the management" reading MISSING REEL. (Both of these are during sex scenes; I guarantee that, if this had happened in the old days, there would have been a riot at the Variety.)


The 3hr.11min. evening opens with a trailer for Machete — not a fake film, since Rodriguez, who wastes nothing, reportedly plans to make this movie. It stars Rodriguez's cousin Danny Trejo, whose leathery face is already rated R for menacing violence, and Cheech Marin as a priest called to arm himself against the mob. When a man on the receiving end of Marin's gun pleads for mercy, the padre replies, "God has mercy. I don't," and blasts away. (The line paraphrases the title of the first Bud Spencer-Terence Hill spaghetti Western God Forgives, I Don't.)

Rodriguez's feature jumbles the zombie, cop, political thriller and rural-trash-melodrama genres. Like The Night of the Living Dead, it's about a random bunch of people trapped in a shack and beset by flesh-dripping, flesh-eating zombies. In the spirit of that 1968 classic, Planet Terror celebrates the community of the still-living, except that Rodriguez's humans do a lot less grousing than George Romero's did. It's also got deadly gases, go-go dancers, pretty disgusting shots of men with extreme gonadal anomalies, and Bruce Willis as the man who killed bin Laden. (Who else would've?)

But at its pulpy heart the movie is a display of grotty special effects: legions of lesions on the zombies' faces and lots more. There's a dead woman a hospital orderly refers to as a "no-brainer ... her brain's scooped clean out of her skull." Rose McGowan, who's the movie's cynical, go-go-dancing heroine, loses most of her leg to the zombies. "I ain't never seen me a one-legged stripper," observes an evil guy played by Tarantino, "an' I been to Morocco!" Soon, but not soon enough given Tarantino the actor's tendency to slaver, the guy's genitals turn to goo and he gets a stick in the eye — the wooden stalk McGowan's been hobbling on since the amputation. Later the leg is fitted with a machine gun, so she can put her dancing moves to fatal use. Oh, and the jar of severed testicles.

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