Take a trip downtown or out along the nearest two-lane highway in the '60s, '70s, or early '80s, and you wouldn't have to wander far to find a crumbling movie palace or drive-in playing lurid B-movies, rushed productions shot on tiny budgets and with little to no studio oversight. They promised, and delivered, an abundance of sex and violence, but some of them kept on delivering beyond that: The best ones preserved a given moment's hang-ups, turn-ons, anxieties, and hopes in the form of lurid, blood-and-skin-filled melodramas. To see what was on the mind of an America still coming to terms with women's lib, for instance, check out Caged Heat. And you can hear the echoes of Black Power more clearly in Truck Turner than in the mainstream political talk of the day.
Born in 1963 and 1968, respectively, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were just old enough to catch the tail end of the grindhouse era, and the right age to catch what they missed in the VHS era. Grindhouse is their attempt to pay tribute to their B-movie influences by re-creating a double feature. Rodriguez takes the first shift with Planet Terror, a zombie movie in which a small Texas town becomes the site of a military experiment gone awry, and maybe ground zero for the apocalypse. Tarantino follows him with Death Proof, a slasher/gearhead movie starring Kurt Russell as a stuntman with a uniquely outfitted car. And don't be slow coming back from the intermission, or you'll miss trailers by Rob Zombie, Shaun Of The Dead's Edgar Wright, and Hostel director Eli Roth.
Of the two films, Rodriguez's entry could more easily pass as the genuine article. The vehicles and cell phones all say 2007, but every other aspect suggests what might have happened if John Carpenter had worked for Cannon Films in 1981. Rose McGowan stars as a heartbroken go-go dancer unwittingly at the heart of a zombie invasion that leaves her transformed in ways beyond that machine gun-leg she sports on the film's poster. It's an unrelenting, blood-drenched action film that with a single scene illustrates how test-marketing and bigger budgets removed the danger of today's action films: Here, a cute kid left alone with a gun might just blow his face off.
While Tarantino's Death Proof is just as steeped in homage, there's no mistaking it for anyone else's work, from the moment the "A Film By" credit appears, superimposed over a woman's shapely feet. Initially set in Austin, Texas, it begins as a pop-culture-obsessed talkfest of the kind that made Tarantino's name. Even when nothing much is happening, it's a pleasure to watch the leads' boozy interaction as Tarantino's camera fetishizes an old jukebox stocked with 45s bearing classic labels like Dial and Scepter. Then the film starts changing shape in ways that would be unfair to reveal, but that should leave most viewers unable to believe their eyes by the film's end.
Grindhouse is a generous package of movie love, from the "missing reels" to the scratched film surfaces, and the highlights are so unforgettable that it's easy to overlook the shortcomings. Exhaustion comes programmed into the three-plus hours, and so does some tedium. Rodriguez's entry is such a canny simulation that, like so many B-movies, it occasionally plays like something better reduced to a trailer. Losing some of the easy interaction that usually characterizes his work, Tarantino's characters speak his unmistakable dialogue with a practiced awkwardness that makes sense in this context, but can still be kind of frustrating to watch.
Nonetheless, the film has a Russian-nesting-doll quality: Unpacking it steadily reveals more, both in the ways the two halves tie together, and in the substance beyond the scratchy surfaces. Rodriguez's film offers some too-faint whiffs of timeliness with its Iraq references, and both directors turn the grindhouse's traditional victimization of women on its head, with Tarantino going so far as to risk making several decades of macho iconography look ridiculous from now on. Like the best of its forebears, Grindhouse contains thrills to keep viewers in their seats, plus moments to think about on the ride home, which will probably seem unusually fraught with peril.