Soundtrack specialists, Varese Sarabande, have released as part of RDS 2018, the soundtrack to Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 zombie grindhouse homage Planet Terror, on lovely opaque white vinyl for all of us wax fetishists.
Perhaps even more than Quentin Tarantino (his fellow Grindhouse aficionado), Robert Rodriguez can really claim kinship to the spirit of maverick shoestring film makers like Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter. He has a similar sense of aesthetics, low budget nous (he reportedly made his first film El Mariachi for $7000) and a celebrated one-man band approach to film making. On Planet Terror he wrote, filmed, directed, produced, edited and scored the movie. Honestly, who knows why he even bothered hiring actors. Rodriguez is such a huge fan of John Carpenter that it’s said he played his soundtracks during filming to get the atmosphere right and he self-consciously borrows a lot from some of those classic scores for the music to his film.
The style of the soundtrack is very much based on the formula that John Carpenter and Alan Howarth established in the 70s. It is driven by deep pounding bass lines, flourishes of dramatic rock guitar riffs and textured with atmospheric synth strokes and 80s style sax. It’s part Assault on Precinct 13, part Escape From New York with a little bit of Rodriguez’s own From Dusk to Dawn thrown in. Graeme Revell, the composer of the soundtrack to Dusk has co-writer credits on some of the tracks here.
Many of the tracks are quite short and the main title track is recycled as a recurring leitmotif throughout. Rose McGowan, one of the film’s stars pops up and sings two very different numbers in the only non-instrumental tracks on the album. One is a stylised cover of the old standard “You Belong to Me” (which has shades of Isabella Rossellini in ‘Blue Velvet’). The other is the impressive closing track “Two Against the World”. Overall the soundtrack hits the spots with style. If you know anything about John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s film scores then you should know what to expect. Which is very much the point.
However, in some ways Planet Terror is a victim of its own success. It suffers because of Rodriguez’s commitment to the authenticity of the homage. Soundtracks are normally judged on two levels. Firstly, the music must score the film appropriately, it must compliment and accentuate the visuals. Does it fit the style of the story? Secondly, we also judge the music as a standalone. When we remove it from the visuals does it work as a separate work of art? Does it have its own inner beauty and energy? Can it communicate something beyond the film? The best soundtracks do both.
Rodriguez’s tones and hues and are spot on and the soundtrack has a strong sense of time and place. He uses the analogue synth beats, the rasping saxophones and growling guitar riffs to take us to the late 70s, to small shabby towns, to poverty and fading dreams. This is small town America with a creeping sense of menace just below the surface. The dance between dark and light perfectly sets up the main scenes and Rodriguez keeps everything fun. As a score the music has a real sense of energy that compliments and accentuates the sharply edited visuals and fast pace of the story.
As a score it’s pitch perfect, but it’s weaker when listened to as a standalone soundtrack. It’s overly familiar, its influences and references are just a little too transparent. There are too many riffs straight out of John Carpenter’s songbook (there is even a track called “Police Station Assault”). Rodriguez isn’t trying to hide this – he expects us to get the reference points. The familiarity is part of the fun. But does that mean it holds up as music away from the film? It’s just too derivative in the end.
The music does inspire a frantic trip down to the record shop, but to buy the Assault on Precinct 13 soundtrack, not this. Watch the film and enjoy it, but when it’s over stick on the double vinyl Escape From New York LP and listen to the real thing . John Carpenter did it first and he did it better.
Planet Terror is now available on vinyl from Varese Sarabande.