After an experimental bio-weapon turns people into flesh-eating zombies, a group of survivors decide to fight back, led by go-go dancer Cherry Darling (McGowan).
By now everyone knows the tortured history of Grindhouse. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature, an ode to old-school celluloid depravity, tanked in the States and was sliced in two to rake money back abroad. This was a bad idea artistically and probably won’t work commercially either (Tarantino’s Death Proof underwhelmed at the UK box office), but there is one silver lining. In the original format, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror kicked off the night. In fact, the zombie extravaganza works better after Tarantino’s more cerebral entry, and with separate DVDs forthcoming, you’ll be able to reprogramme the double-bill yourself.
Planet Terror is juiced-up, late-night excess from frame one. The opening is terrific - the tale’s kick-ass heroine, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), is unveiled, writhing around the stage of a go-go club, scored by raunchy sax. Then it’s off to meet the other denizens of this spookily quiet burg. These include Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), a sexy nurse who carries hypodermic needles in a thigh-belt, her creepy doctor husband (Josh Brolin), the local sheriff (Michael Biehn) and his brother (Jeff Fahey), manager of the local BBQ pit.
If these sound like stock characters from a late-night TV movie, well, that’s really the point. Planet Terror aims for big spectacle and retro silliness. So behold: a man who collects his enemies’ testicles, a squadron of mutated Marines and, Rodriguez’s crowning glory, a girl with a machine-gun for a leg. It’s colourful, fun and stylishly designed, but the tone is all over the place. Is Rodriguez spoofing cheapjack flicks (and why bother spoofing something that’s bad in the first place?) or trying to make a proper film?
So what we finally get is a wildly uneven horror-comedy that starts tight and gets increasingly ramshackle and unfocused, especially in this extended version. There are great scenes - Dakota struggling to open a car door with anaesthetised hands - and there are terrible scenes - Tarantino cameos as a pervy soldier who likes talking about Ava Gardner, as only a pervy soldier played by Tarantino would. Bruce Willis pops up to no particular effect and there’s an odd, unpleasant sequence involving the director’s young son. But it’s hard not to cheer at the sick effects and slick stunts, as when Cherry uses her gun-limb to blast way into the air, before arching into a go-go position and strafing the undead.
Both Grindhouse films tried to simulate the 42nd Street fleapit experience by trashing the prints, but Planet Terror is the one that really runs with the concept. Film stock changes drastically from scene to scene; the screen’s plagued with cigarette burns and scratches, and a ‘missing’ reel at an inopportune time gets a groany laugh. Applied to the whole double-bill, with fake trailers and ads attached, this worked. Here, it’s more likely to confuse people. And of those trailers, we only get Machete, with no sign of Edgar Wright’s inspired ‘Don’t’. It seems an odd decision to deprive the UK of the sight of Nick Frost in a big nappy.
While this is the Grindhouse film that suffers most from being presented solo, its still the most fun. Watch with beer in hand and tongue in cheek for optimal effect.