I'm going to leave the definition to David Kamp and Laurence Levi's jolly and witty "The Film Snob's Dictionary": "Posthumously coined genre term for the tawdry scuzzploitation films that flourished in sticky-floored adults-only moviehouses before the advent of videos and the tidying up of Times Square. . . . Slumming snobs associate grindhouse with the late 1960s, early '70s golden era of WIP (women-in-prison) films and the deathless 'classics' 'I Dismember Mama,' 'Gutter Trash' and 'Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.' "
We never really had a grindhouse in Buffalo. When the defunct downtown Center Theater was divvied up into three screens, it came close. So did the equally defunct Teck Theater. That's where red-eyed devotees of cinema des refuses could catch double features of the likes of "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS." But then once upon a time the Center was the great revered old Hippodrome Theater, home of Shirley Temple movies. And, in its earlier, best days, the queenly old Teck was the home of expensive "prestigious" road shows like "Ben-Hur."
No matter. You get the idea. Movie nuts loved both places, just as they loved "scuzzploitation" films. There's truth in garbage -- and real adrenaline liberation, too. That's where nothing stood between the filmmaker and his crazed, festering unconscious but his talent and his budget. That's where a filmmaker could answer Chubby Checker's immortal question: "How low can you go?"
And now two of the cleverest filmmakers we've got -- Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino -- have gone to great lengths to reproduce, with hilarious loving parody, the grindhouse experience. It's a filmmakers' love letter to the native genius of the gutter. You've heard of Cinema Paradiso? Well, here's Cinema Inferno, the movies of the damned.
At the time of those films, American movies were, for the first time, overrun by great moviemakers sometimes called "The Movie Brats" (Spielberg, Scorsese, Bogdanovich). They were like film professors without portfolio (except Scorsese, who has taught film at NYU). Rodriguez and Tarantino are film geeks. They eat films. Call what they do cinemaphagy. And, in "Grindhouse," the great cinemaphagists are doing what happens at the other end of alimentation after you eat.
Sanctifying that is a hopeless adolescent enterprise, for sure, but "Grindhouse" sure is an entertaining tribute to the grindhouse experience. The film is full of fake lines, snaps, crackles and pops, as if the same aging abused print had been bicycled from Poughkeepsie to Pismo Beach. It's got "missing scenes" right at the moment where some presumably horny projectionist appropriated the sex scene for his own purposes. The acting is simulated awful -- and so is some of the dialogue. The violence, gross-outs and stunt action, though, are deliriously real.
There are hilarious fake previews (Danny Trejo, for instance, in the simulated fave "Machete" -- "he knows the score, he gets the women, he kills the bad guys.")
Mostly what we've got, for more than an excessive three hours, are Rodriguez's film "Planet Terror" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." "Planet Terror" is a flesh-eating zombie number in which a death termed a "no brainer" really is a no-brainer. It stars Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Buffalo's own Jeff Fahey as good guys and, as the babe with guns, Rose McGowan, who loses her left leg in the proceedings but keeps going on a tear that would shame Heather Mills. Among the immortally dubious jokes attached to her condition is the line "I've never seen a one-legged stripper -- and I've been to Morocco!" Eventually, she saves the day by attaching major armaments to her leg and mowing zombies down.
And then there's Tarantino's "Death Proof" in which McGowan also appears but with even worse luck. That's about a fellow named "Stunt Man Mike" (Kurt Russell) who, after failing to pick up girls in a bar who've been doing shots of Chartreuse and Jagermeister all night, takes a stuntman's revenge.
Eventually, he gets his when some stuntwomen -- Tracie Thomas (of TV's "Cold Case" in the Samuel L. Jackson 10-letter word part) and the very real stuntwoman Zoe Bell -- turn the tables with audience-satisfying savagery.
The dialogue in "Death Proof" isn't ersatz awful, it's quite genuinely awful. But, by God, when the final scenes pay tribute to the stunt delirium of such movies as Richard Serafian's "Vanishing Point," the hilarity of the whole enterprise is at its purest. What stuntwoman Bell does in this movie is probably worth the whole three hours.
Oscar Wilde used to say that the human condition is lying in the gutter looking up at the stars. What Rodriguez and Tarantino are asking is: What's more like heaven than being in a movie theater and looking up at the gutter?
STARRING: Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, Freddy Rodriguez, Zoe Bell and Josh Brolin
DIRECTORS: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
RUNNING TIME: 192 minutes
RATING: R for much violence, gore, nudity, and rough language.
THE LOWDOWN: Two masters of cinematic violence reproduce the experience of sitting through a double feature in the golden age of movie exploitation.