Since bringing their debut films to Sundance the same year, Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino have aligned themselves as aesthetic look-a-likes (if not identical twins.) On the surface, perhaps, they are similar: genre directors in love with B-movies, more than willing to have a little fun with their craft and celebrate their filmmaking forefathers in the process. But the ways in which they go about that celebration is inherantly different, and by packaging their latest movies as a double feature with an omnibus title and a single raison d’etre, Q.T. and R.R. all but dare their audience to engage in a post-viewing compare-and-contrast.
Let us first consider the Case of the Missing Reel, a gag used in both films. In Tarantino’s Death Proof, it is just that: a gag. Much lip service has been paid to the possibility of a lapdance given to the first lucky guy who recites a certain poem to Arlene and calls her “Butterfly,” and—after some rather charming coercion—she finally agrees to give Stuntman Mike that lapdance. Cue the missing reel card, after which we are returned to the narrative just after the lapdance. In Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the missing reel is not just a gag, although it is used in a much funnier fashion, but it is also an integral part of the structure. The missing reel is used to skip a significant portion of exposition (e.g., how all the characters we’ve met throughout the film are now all in the same place at the same time), continue the single-minded drive of the film. and get us that much closer to the climax. Without that “missing reel,” the first half of this double feature wouldn’t work nearly as well. It also represents much more closely the amount of footage contained in a whole eleven minute reel of film.
It was much easier for Rodriguez to integrate the missing reel into Planet Terror because he establishes an anything goes atmosphere immediately. We aren’t worried about the fact that we didn’t see how the Bone Shack went up in flames or how Deputy Tolo happened to shoot Sherrif Hague in the neck because we know we are living in meta-land. Don’t worry, the movie says to us, none of this is actually happening, it’s just a movie about movies. There is nothing in Planet Terror resembling the affection we feel for the (second set of) girls in Death Proof, therefore nothing in Planet Terror can have a similar emotional resonance as watching those girls be put in danger.
Rodriguez seems to believe that he and Tarantino are firmly a part of the genre heritage Grindhouse was supposed to be paying homage to. The stripper dance that opens Planet Terror isn’t all that much different from the one Salma Hayek’s character performs in From Dusk Till Dawn (except for the lack of a boa constrictor.) Cherry’s gun-for-a-leg is only a step or two up the ladder of ridiculous from Desperado’s guitar-cases-as-guns-and- rocket-launchers. But until Kill Bill, Tarantino was always a little too highfalutin to make a film as balls-out fun as anything Rodriguez has done. It’s almost as if he wishes he were the type of director that Rodriguez is and gets a thrill from being in proximity to the real thing (hence their multiple collaborations; Q.T.’s “guest-directing” in Sin City.) Here’s the weird part: Death Proof is way more “real thing” than Rodriguez’s own installment.
Planet Terror ends up being something rather close to Kill Bill: a wholly entertaining pastiche of its director’s passions. Fun, exciting, funny, but not detachable from its antecedents. Planet Terror needs its B-movie homage context to exist. Although it is not condescending in its execution, it is very clearly taking the piss out of the multiple genres it so brilliantly replicates. On the other hand, Death Proof, despite more than fulfilling the expected Tarantino quota of movie references, doesn’t need slasher, rape-revenge or car chase movies to be exactly as entertaining as it is. Planet Terror talks about B-movies. It does so from down in the trenches, totally unafraid of getting its hands dirty, letting the funny-bad dialogue be funny-bad and the gore be gorey—but it is still only talking about this type of movie. Meanwhile, Death Proof spends its entire running time being one.
Tarantino starts out by indulging in the same type of kidding about the physical material of a B-movie that runs all throughout Planet Terror. In Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse, the picture often looks as if it is a degraded, scratched-up old print, decomposing in front of our eyes. Death Proof throws in a few hiccups near its beginning, replaying the same line of dialogue a few times, but other than that—and the missing reel gag—Tarantino plays it straight. Where Planet Terror is overpopulated with leading characters and subplots, Death Proof is drained of all but the essentials: a scary crazy guy, some innocents to terrorize, one truly badass stunt (which lasts a really looong time), and a bunch of dialogue scenes to pad its running time. This is what an exploitation movie looks, and feels, like. It doesn’t have everything but the kitchen sink and a dozen action set-pieces. It is built around that one killer idea, the scene so kick-ass that everyone will be talking about it when the lights come up and telling their friends they have to go see the flick because this thing has to be seen to be believed. Rodriguez, with ten times the budget and five times the ideas, made a movie that an exploitation filmmaker would kill to make. Tarantino made a movie than an exploitation filmmaker would make.