The Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriquez experiment in bringing back the true celebration of exploitation cinema - the Grindhouse Effect - was a weirdly mishandled affair from start to finish. The Weinsteins didn't help when the two-picture release was cracked in half and the respective films released separately in the UK, thus robbing audiences of the desired double-bill showcase of blood and sleaze that had been the intention from the get-go. But, this said, even the two together, on the road as it were, didn't exactly set the world on fire for US audiences either, who possibly found the marathon-mayhem too much to handle in one sitting. It was, perhaps, even more detrimental that Tarantino's own entry, the Kurt Russell roadkill-frenzy Deathproof, was such a damp squib. Overlong, ridiculously dialogue heavy and only managing a couple of moments of free-wheeling fun, his piece of the pie was the choker that left, if not a bad taste, but a tang of certain dissatisfaction.
Thus, when it was down to Robert Rodriquez to come up with the necessary goods, we can be thankful that he was more than willing and able to provide just that. In spades.
If Deathproof was Tarantino's ode to the sleazy road-movie of lawless depravity served up in the likes of Black Bikers From Hell or any number of vixen hot-rod exploitationers, then Planet Terror was the gut-busting, head-exploding pantomime of the zombie cycle instigated by George Romero, but filtered through the sluice-gates of hyper-grisly videogame shoot 'em ups. The violence is gleeful, over-the-top and often barf-inducing, yet it is delivered with such childlike zeal and outright abandon that it is (mostly) impossible to be offended by it. Rodriguez knows his audience and he caters almost essentially for them. But whereas From Dusk Till Dawn felt like two genre riffs bolted together as clumsily as a hooky car, Planet Terror's seams are a lot easier to fuse and the resulting style much smoother. It lives and breathes the juicy gore-frenzies of the early eighties but it manages to pitch in the hyper-drawn characters from a million Z-grade pot-boilers and still them give them enough of a spin to ensure that they rise above their totally clichéd heritage. The emphasis is on fun - overtly stylised, taboo-breaking, cathartic fun. And, man, is it addictive!
Texas is in trouble. They've got a vicious bio-chemical toxin housed in the bowels of a military installation that has sprung a leak. There's a trigger-happy dispute between two factions who want control over it - Lost's Naveen Andrews as the bandanna-wearing, testicle-collecting boffin, Abby, and Bruce Willis' renegade commando, Muldoon, and his Special Ops squad of toxin-poisoned mutant militia, including a mangy-membered Tarantino in a suitably daft cameo. These nutters have also knocked Rose McGowen's flexible go-go girl, Cherry, into the gutter and mangled up a once luscious leg to the point where it will just have to come off - although the proper surgical procedure is, sadly, not an option in a film as messily “hands-on” as this. Marley Shelton's super-hot lesbian anaesthetist Dakota's plans to leave her borderline psychotic doctor-husband, Block (Josh Brolin - who learnt his lines for No Country For Old Man whilst slipping and sliding on the gore in this), have gone awry since the population seems to have become infected with some bizarre flesh-contorting disease and the hospital is now inundated with drooling, lumpy-faced patients who appear to be getting hungrier and hungrier by the minute. Freddy Rodriguez's goatee-bearded rebel, Wray, can't even get a proper munch on the best damn BBQ in the state when his old flame, Cherry, stumbles back into his life wearing the leather jacket that he “spent two weeks” looking for, and that pesky Sheriff Hague (Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn) just won't get off his case about the assault rifle he has in his truck. And the noble Sheriff has a few problems of his own, too. Deputy Tolo, makeup FX god Tom Savini putting even more of a comic spin on his Sex Machine role in From Dusk Till Dawn , has just lost his finger when arresting a suspect and the sorry-looking mob of dishevelled itinerants gathering outside his station-house don't bode well for a peaceful evening. And, why oh why won't his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey sporting a scratchy grey beard that now makes him look like a deadringer for TV actor John Alderton) give him the goddamn recipe for that fantastic BBQ sauce of his?
Populated like a wilder-than-normal Family Guy episode, and running at the ten times the speed, Planet Terror cruises by on smart-ass retorts, killer-quips and the kind of acerbic, hard-as-nails cine-speak that real-life just cannot compete with. The personalities are stock caricatures fuelled on nitro-glycerine, their dilemmas and back stories already warped before the bone-gnawing even begins.
You get the feeling that things were always going to go hideously pear-shaped with this motley crew of ne-er-do-wells.
And pretty soon you've got pus-filled faces popping goo all over the place, limbs being yanked off amid geysers of blood, intestines un-spooling, infected marauders laying siege to isolated places, renegade soldiers operating to their own heinous agenda, Rose McGowen's Cherry hobbling across the screen with either a table-leg or a machinegun propping up her stump, Freddie Rodriguez's Wray trying to hold onto his hidden identity and just get a gun and Michael Biehn's Sheriff more determined to get hold of his yokel brother's secret barbeque sauce recipe than to fend off the flesh-munching hordes that perpetually surround them. Never once meant to be taken seriously, Planet Terror shoots from the hip, splashes more gore than Romero's original Dead trilogy and sets up a wild roster of Texan rednecks as zombie-fodder. There's no denying the sheer fun to be had from such a loopy scenario and Rodriguez absorbs elements of Dan O'Bannon's Return Of The Living Dead, Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, Jackson's Brain Dead and, in one terrific rotor-blade splatter-fest, even 28 Weeks Later. But the trashy feel of the flick is probably more akin to the likes of Umberto Lenzi's super-schlock excesses of Nightmare City with its relentlessly splashy shooting gallery approach.
“Now you've got a girl in your wrecked truck with a missing leg? A missing leg that's now missing?”
So, beyond this ramshackle gathering of survivors, Planet Terror becomes a non-stop series of bloody encounters, furious battles and wisecrackery under-fire. To expand any further on what is a pure, distilled comic-book car-wreck of a plot would be utterly pointless. There are sub-plots, there is character development taking place and there is even some overarching motif lurking behind this madcap scenario, but none of this really matters at the end of the day. What Planet Terror has ingrained into its soul is the desire to continually parade excessive violence in-yer-face and top each and every splat-stick situation with another that goes beyond it. With a genre so ripe for pastiche, parody and lampoonery, it is unnecessary for Rodriguez to pick out any particular examples of the zombie-boom to essay - the whole smorgasbord of CG evisceration, popping latex bladders and decorative cranial implosions is grist for his mill. The stereotypical sieges soon get shunted in favour a riotous road-trip that sees a convoy of gun-filled vehicles ploughing down the highway into, over and through anything that gets in its way. Points must go to Wray on his souped-up mini-bike, his knees sticking out at right angles and his ass almost dragging along the deck as he takes high-speed pot-shots at shambling ghouls who seem to have forgotten the Green Cross Code. But, round this way, everyone seems to eat roadkill.
Although most eyes will surely be upon McGowan's lithe, vertebrae-shifting form (hats off to the exotic stage position that she gets into to mow down an approaching horde of zombified soldiers and, especially, the little arch she makes to let a rocket roar beneath her), it is Shelton's determined blonde who steals the show. With a trio of her favourite hypodermics strapped in a thigh-holster and a slit in her skirt that should prove distracting even to a ravaged, molten mutant with the munchies on his mind, she becomes a sort of icon in an already crowded field of such fantastical heroines. Admittedly she has a tough job sizing-up against McGowan's gun-limbed “go-go-get-em girl” but, in my opinion, she definitely more than holds her own. Look out for the terrific window-smash escape that she makes and then the protracted attempt to get into her car with a pair of hands that have been viciously and repeatedly anaesthetised. Shades of Uma Thurman's Bride from the Kill Bill movies are reverentially evoked and it is hard not to see Tarantino's input into such a comically agonising sequence.
“Tony, if anyone comes up to the car, I want you to shoot them. Just like in your video games: shoot them in the head.”
“What if it's dad?”
“ Especially if it's your dad!”
If the film comes adrift, it is surely when Tarantino makes his appearance. As an Ava Gardner-obsessed rapist, he brings the frantic pace to a sluggish meander, his wannabe-cool lines failing to stick in the mind and his bloated frame clogging up the excitement. Be thankful then that FX-boys Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero are on-hand to spice things up with a grotesque Tarantino-transformation that inflates the former Reservoir Dog into a Hoover Dam that quite literally bursts. But, despite all this mayhem, there is something of an absence of identity to the infected squadrons of bullet-catchers. Although potently cartoonic through and through, the zombies here, with only one or two exceptions, are a bland bunch. Swiftly carnivorous to be sure, but they lack the individuality that Romero or Fulci would have afforded them, merely pulsating air-bags of offal lining up for high-calibre decimation. This is only a slight gripe, though, as the point is that there are just so many of these things tottering about that potential “specials” amongst the mob would simply blend in anyway. But Rodriguez shows real flair with his assembly-line of action. Vehicles career about all over the place, zombies are engulfed in flames, helicopters scuttle about the skies and just about everything explodes at some point. The hospital horror-show is a terrific set-piece that even manages to recall the arterial spraying of the Lone Wolf And Cub series (or the Shogun Assassin greatest hits compilation that they became better known as in the UK) and this may well be the film's high-point, managing to be intense, action-packed, grisly and funny all at the same time. Freddy Rodriguez manages to put his dancing feet to good use as he skirts up a wall and flips over a mutoid's head in a fabulous Fangora-flavoured steal from Fred Astaire. There is even a great sense of the “epic” with the film's “backs-to-the-ocean” epilogue.
Writer/director Rodriguez, ever the John Carpenter fan and devoted acolyte, even composes a lot of the score for the film, himself. With some additional music from regular collaborator, Graeme Revell, he creates a homage to Escape From New York with several key themes from the 80's classic reworked and sampled. And the tracks that haven't been lifted from Snake Plissken's bite from the Big Apple sound exactly like alternate takes or bonus tracks from it, anyway. Even the raucous, grungy rock chords from They Live materialise in this sinuous stew. Spectacularly catchy synth-beats, twanging sampled guitars (lassoing Duayne Eddy's memorable riffs from both Broken Arrow and Scream 2 and slyly retooling them) and some deep, metronomic pace-builders garner the film with yet another element that blissfully evokes the entire sub-genre and one-stop-shop of the irresistible Ker-razy cult stamp machismo is also proclaimed by the hot, tub-thumping main theme that resurfaces in many guises throughout, bashing out a bump 'n' grind beat that feels both intoxicating and dirty. It is worth mentioning that Rose McGowan really knows how to work to this number too - as that title sequence so flexibly shows.
“Look at me! I was gonna be a stand-up comedian! Who's gonna laugh now?”
“Some of the best jokes are about cripples. Let's go.”
The jokes work. The gore works. The zany, pell-mell hauling-together of so many disparate individuals into one seriously whacked-out apocalyptic possee works. Visually, the film is remarkable and it takes some courage and directorial verve to then downgrade, pock-mark and desecrate it to this extent. The infamy of the Missing Reel is a great sideswipe to unnecessary character arcing in such films. Nobody goes to a cheese-ball exploitation flick to see how a delectable lesbian mother makes it up her embittered father, anyway. So, Rodriguez doesn't waste time with such stuff. And his deliberate evasion of a “major” topic between two other characters - we rejoin the movie only after the revelation has occurred - is also quite brilliant.
Planet Terror is a blast from start to finish, with only Tarantino's whispery rapist momentarily stalling the fun. Definitely recommended for those who like wholesale movie-referencing taken to ludicrous new extremes, and for those who might enjoy a hint of Russ Meyer's sleazy-scumbaggery along with lashings of giggly gore. In my book, that's a winning combination.
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