Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi horror splatterfest Planet Terror is one half of Grindhouse, a joint project made with Quentin Tarantino that serves as an homage to the scuzzy, violent and cheap exploitation movies of the 1970s that used to be shown in ‘grindhouse’ cinemas. If you’d like to read my review of Tarantino’s half, Death Proof, please click here.
Like Tarantino’s movie, an extended version of Planet Terror was released internationally as a standalone film. Unlike Death Proof, however, it doesn’t suffer too much from the extra padding required to take it over the 90 minute mark, and though it’s hardly the most demanding watch, it’s an enjoyable monster movie that achieves a nice tongue-in-cheek tone.
Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer down on her luck in rural Texas. She quits her job and then runs into ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at the Bone Shack, a BBQ restaurant owned by JT Hague (Jeff Fahey) and his sheriff brother (Michael Biehn). They quickly realise that something afoot is happening nearby as half of the town’s residents have rapidly turned into zombie-like flesh-eaters who will quite happily feast on legs, guts and even brains. They have been infected by a biochemical agent, vast amounts of which were released into the air following a clash between scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) and the demented Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis).
Local doctor William Block (Josh Brolin) struggles to keep a handle on the outbreak, and he must also contend with his bisexual anaesthetist wife Dakota (Marley Shelton), who is having an affair with another woman and planning to skip town. As the infection spreads from one person to the next El Wray and Cherry must rely on their wits, speed and a prosthetic machine gun for survival.
As with Death Proof, Rodriguez recreates the look of grindhouse films of the 1970s by including damaged film, cheap stock footage and deliberately poor soundtrack synching and editing throughout Planet Terror. A fake trailer for another grindhouse film called Machete, starring Danny Trejo, is shown at the beginning (which of course actually became a movie in its own right a few years later, along with a sequel called Machete Kills). A sex scene between Cherry and El Wray is amusingly replaced with a notice that explains that the reel has gone missing, with apologies from the theatre. The colouring is way off what we expect to see today, but the strong primary colours enhance all the blood and guts flying around the screen. Some audience members hated these cheap-looking effects, or found them gimmicky, but I love them.
Rodriguez has been here before, of course. Planet Terror is as highly-stylized as his previous movie, 2005’s Sin City, although its tone most closely resembles his camp late-90s vampire romp From Dusk Til Dawn. It shares that earlier film’s humour, well-choreographed action scenes and knowing performances. (Bruce Willis’s first appearance here, for example, in which he announces his Bruce Willisness with a kind of “Hey, it really is me” smirk toward the camera, is priceless.)
Like From Dusk Til Dawn, Planet Terror builds toward the inevitable big fight at the end, but unfortunately it’s slightly disappointing given the excellent few scenes of carnage at the hospital that precede it. The movie’s iconic image is of Cherry with a machine gun fixed to the stump of her right leg, which is chewed off earlier by angry locals, but even that first isn’t enough to save it from being a damp squib of an ending. The film also could have done without yet another Tarantino cameo, although given that he directed quite a lot of it (as did Rodriguez with Death Proof, apparently) it’s hard to begrudge him his moment in the sun as, er… ‘Rapist #1’.
With its violent disembowlings, mutated faces and exploding pus-filled heads, Planet Terror really isn’t setting out to be anything other than a collection of gory and titillating scenes slapped together between a ridiculous start and a ridiculous ending, but its utterly basic sub-plots actually turn it into quite a charming film. The one involving Dakota’s infidelity enables Brolin and Shelton to act out a hilariously-tense soap opera-lite scene, when Dr Block confronts his cheating wife with the mobile phone belonging to her lover Tammy (Stacey Ferguson, aka Fergie from pop group The Black Eyed Peas), and I also enjoyed the repeated attempts by Michael Biehn’s sheriff to get hold of the BBQ sauce recipe held by his brother JT. (Whenever I see Michael Biehn on screen it feels like a long-lost brother has returned home after going missing in the late 1980s. Welcome back Mike!)
The actors here are all camping it up to ridiculous levels – Brolin wins that particular contest hands down – but I did actually enjoy the two lead performances of McGowan and Rodriguez, who both manage to recall the heroic male and female pairings of the late 70s and early 80s classic horror period. It’s a pair of undemanding roles, granted, but they look good together and both really go for it with the action sequences. McGowan in particular seems to relish delivering some of the film’s cheesiest lines.
There are plenty of gruesome deaths, but Rodriguez doesn’t really go in for the misogyny that plagued Death Proof, and the addition of a few scantily clad women near the end to help fight the infected residents feels more like a spoofing of 70s sexism than anything overly sleazy; it feels much easier to watch when compared with the other half of Grindhouse, as to me it seems as though Tarantino used the project as an excuse to see exactly how much he could get away with. Still, I’m not suggesting Germaine Greer would dig it; Planet Terror is rooted in the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and as such the lead female character works in a strip club, the female cops wear hot pants, the camera leers over Fergie’s breasts whenever she’s on screen, and so on and so on.
Ultimately, I like Planet Terror because although it’s a throwaway pile of nonsense, it’s a fun throwaway pile of nonsense. It’s cheesy, violent, witty, both predictable and unpredictable, and Rodriguez certainly achieves the goal of creating a complete and utter schlockfest. Most importantly, it’s fast-paced, and that helps to smooth over all the deficiencies (even if most of them are actually deliberate). Of the two movies that made up the Grindhouse double bill it’s the one that adheres most to the history of B-movies, and if the idea of a fun Troma-style take on zombie splatter movies like Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead and Raimi’s The Evil Dead appeals, you could do worse.
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis, Marley Shelton, Naveen Andrews, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey
Running Time: 109 minutes