Robert Rodriguez is one of those Marmite directors – you either love his vibrant, over-the-top storytelling, his visual flourishes, and his honed comic book-style sensibilities, or you hate his garish flashiness, his paper thin plots, or his insistence on tired tropes.
In 2007, he and friend-slash-fellow-auteur-director Quentin Tarantino announced that they would be unveiling two films, one from each director that would form the Grindhouse duology, a love letter to the grindhouse cinemas that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to societal class shifts in cities and to the emergence of exploitation flicks as a cultural result.
Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s offering to Grindhouse, is a splashy and gory affair, existing in a parallel universe of Texas where troubled rogues, sadistic doctors, and even battle-beleaguered barbecue cooks fight for survival in the middle of a government-engineered and gruesome zombie outbreak. Not your basic zombie horror movie then.
The cast is top-notch, everyone clearing have a (largely bewildered) ball here with their roles. Josh Brolin abusive doctor is as menacing as any zombie horde, especially when played off against Marley Shelton as his doe-eyed wife and fellow doc, while Freddy Rodriguez plays the Rodriguez archetype of a returned mysterious loner with camp enjoyment, and day players such as Naveen Andrews, Jeff Fahey, Tom Savini, Michael Biehn, and Bruce Willis having fun in their own small way.
The literal cherry on the top is Rose McGowan’s tongue in cheek protagonist Cherry Darling, a cynical pole dancer who quickly loses her leg and her confidence, finding both again in rapid succession (in the latter, a machine gun in true exploitation fashion) in time to become the badass heroine that we didn’t know we needed. McGowan channels a funny sincerity, so that even though the unlikely band of misfits she ends up leading find themselves in some strange situations, you still thoroughly believe in her.
The film has a lot of fun with the cast, a lot of them Rodriguez and Tarantino regulars (both directors make a point of reusing a handful of the same actors for wholly different characters, echoing the back-to-back showings of the traditional grindhouse way), and Rodriguez has few qualms about dispatching cast members with violent regularity.
The film itself bounces around its genres, in a way similar to its companion film Death Proof (Tarantino’s vastly underrated slasher-turned-car-chase flick), and unafraid to paint with the whole palate. There’s pitch-black comedy thrown around (Tarantino’s cameo is more groan-worthy than gruesome), body horror, government conspiracy, romance, tragedy, action, violence, and heapings of dark, distinctly human drama too (Brolin’s domestic abuse of Shelton is especially bleak in the film’s first act.)
It’s nothing more than possibly the most high-concept genre offering of the mid-to-late 2000s, a 103-minute offering that trades in a substantial and coherent plot (given the emphasis on the government conspiracy in the final third, it plays a little like 28 Days Later written on a cocaine bender) for plenty of spills, thrills, and exploitative visuals, as in the flicks that Rodriguez and Tarantino are so earnest in trying to emulate.
That’s not to say that Planet Terror is all style and no substance, although that largely is true. There’s plenty to root for in this odd film – Shelton’s transformation from besieged to brave is cheer-worthy, and the zombie attacks are pretty thrilling, with each setpiece enjoyable in its own, hyper-dramatic way. McGowan’s blazing finale avec machine gun prosthesis is ridiculously silly and joyously fun because of that fact, and worth of witnessing if nothing else.
Planet Terror isn’t Rodriguez’s strongest film – not by a long shot – but it’s also a far cry from his weakest. It’s a gore-soaked love letter to the video nasties of the late twentieth century that celebrates the excessive best and worst of the genre, and for that it should be applauded.
Plus there’s an entirely different version of the film where Dakota’s son Tony (played by Rodriguez’s own son Rebel) avoids his tragic end midway through the film and survives the whole way to play with his critters on the beach (this ending appears joyously as a post-credit scene) and Rodriguez provides his own BBQ recipe on the film’s extras. What’s not to love about that?
Are you a fan of Planet Terror? Let us know!