351 – Planet Terror

As half of the larger Grindhouse movie (with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is precisely what it aims to be – an homage to cheesy, low-budget zombie movies of the seventies and eighties. Although it’s told in a straightforward manner, Planet Terror allows the viewer to enjoy the nostalgia theme ironically, with just enough creeps and scares to be viewed as a honest-to-goodness horror thriller.

Seems some kind of noxious nerve gas that changes those who breathe it into flesh-eating zombies has been unleashed into the air at a military base (helpfully called “Military Base” on road signs). The army can’t help – they might be behind it! So who can save the day? Why, a motley crew of citizens from a nearby town, of course, including a stripper who’s just quit her job (Rose McGowan), a tow-truck-driving loner (Freddy Rodriguez), an honest sheriff (Michael Biehn), and a domestically abused doctor (Marley Shelton). Somehow, they must eradicate just enough of the mindless drones to escape to a better clime and find out how to keep the disease from spreading further. Can they do it? Yes they can!

As with most Robert Rodriguez movies, there’s a lot of style AND substance to go around. For one thing, the movie’s very well filmed, from the seamy lighting surrounding J.T.’s Bone Shack to the orderly madness of the local hospital. Heck, even the music sounds authentic, like the producers spent $20 to grab a few songs off of iTunes. Which brings me to the same conundrum I experienced with Death Proof: Why, if these are supposed to be homages to old-time crapfests from the 1970s or so, are there so many nods to modern living? I mean, why not go whole hog and have the movie actually SET in the 1970s? Wouldn’t that have made more sense?

Eh, doesn’t matter too much. Little anachronisms may be an irritant, but the movie’s so well put together that you likely won’t even notice or mind. Plus, Rodriguez makes up for that – and then some – by mischievously releasing the movie as if it had a missing reel (a reel that was never filmed, it should be noted). Oh, it’s priceless. Freddy Rodriguez, as El Wray, is in the middle of coupling with his ex-ex-now-maybe-on-again, Cherry (McGowan) when the film appears to melt and perhaps fall off the reel; the viewer then sees a title card apologizing for the delay, and then POW, we’re back in the movie, well further along than when we’d left it. (Humorously, the sheriff thanks El Wray later on for revealing his true identity and calling to the lawman; El Wray nods and tells the sheriff to keep it under his hat. Nudge nudge, wink, wink!)

But see, this isn’t just about a stripper with a heart of gold warding off hordes of zombies; it’s about a legless stripper with a heart of gold. See, early on, Cherry was sideswiped by a transport vehicle as she walked along the side of the road. She somehow caught the disease the zombies would later get, but she was “saved” when the good doctors chopped off the offending and infected leg. Heck, for part of the movie she has a table leg wedged into her metal stump, but later on? Later on she gets a machine gun there. Now THAT’S badass! She’s a lithe stripper, you see, able to bend and twist and fire the gun wherever she wants. That Cherry, she has quite the assets, doesn’t she?

McGowan and F. Rodriguez are both great, and so’s the well-picked supporting cast, including Biehn as the intrepid sheriff and Jeff Fahey as his brother, a restauranteur. Oh, and Michael Parks, who’s played the same kindly Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, who’s been in both Kill Bill films and Tarantino’s Death Proof, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn (also directed by Rodriguez), and he’s wryly amusing here. Heck, Bruce Willis appears unbilled, too. Tarantino’s in it as well; he’s actually half-decent as an actor, although his turn in Death Proof was a bit more entertaining.

In all, Planet Terror serves as a grimy reminder of just how deservedly unsung those cranked-out crapfests were back in the day, back when you’d pay a nickel for a double feature, and that included popcorn, by gum! The characters are appropriately shallowly written, although often the actors add just enough depth to make the movie worthwhile, even nonironically.

***

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