The View From Here

First Look -- Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror

Michael Bonner

Settling down into my seat at last night's press screening for Planet Terror, I overheard the chap sitting next to me giving his friend a crash course in the film's back story. "You know Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof was originally part of a double-feature called Grindhouse? Well, this is the other bit." Quite how Robert Rodriguez would respond to having his film referred to as the "other bit", I don't care to imagine, the Mexican temprament being notoriously fiery. It's a stroke of luck, then, that his name appears 7 times on the opening credits, just to reinforce the fact that there's more to Grindhouse than just Tarantino's movie.

In fact, Planet Terror is far and away the better of the two movies, Rodriquez cannily remembering to include some of those elements in his film Tarantino left out -- plot, character, humour, simple things like that. Though, thankfully, Planet Terror conspicuously lacks the rather nasty, misogynistic streak that made Death Proof such an uneasy viewing experience for me.

As it goes, Tarantino himself turns up in Planet Terror, cameoing as an army guard who -- rather too gleefully for my liking -- tries to force Rose McGowan to go-go dance for him. After the disturbing levels of enthusiasm with which he subjected women to all manner of psychological, sexual and physical abuse in Death Proof, I'm left wondering quite exactly Tarantino's head is at.

Anyway, Planet Terror isn't by any stretch a great film, but it is pretty funny. It's certainly in the style of many a bad Seventies' horror film (and they're all pretty bad in my book), with a troop of soldiers led by Bruce Willis releasing, perhaps by accident, a noxious chemical into a small Texas town that turns nearly all the residents into flesh-eating zombies. It falls to a small band of survivors to try and make it out of the city limits to safety. Rodriquez cheerfully throws as much gore at us as he can -- heads explode, entrails are duly snacked upon, limbs are lost (and, in the case of McGowan's leg, replaced by automatic weaponry) -- and there's an energy and exuberance to the whole thing that, at the very least, is a lot of fun.

Rodriquez is a big fan of Jim Thompson, so there's a something of a noirish sensibility at work in the characterisations. There's Freddy Rodriquez' loner El Wray (a Thompson nod if ever there was); his former girlfriend Cherry Darling (McGowan), who now works as a go-go dancer; Michael Biehn's crusty sherriff Hague. Sure, they're all rather reductive archetypes, but they sit easily in Planet Terror's trashy, two-dimensional aesthetic.

A friend of mine asked after the screening, is this meant to be homage or parody? Certainly, some of the biggest laughs in the film come when Rodriquez deliberately undercuts the genre. One scene sees a character trying to make a getaway from hoardes of lumbering zombies on a mini-motorbike. A lot of the time, Freddy Rodriquez and McGowan seem on the verge of winking knowingly at each other. It all just ads to the laughs.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see how it does when it opens in the UK in November. Anecdotal reports aren't good for Death Proof -- I heard a Friday evening screening in Brighton last week had only six people in the audience, and this the day after the film opened. But I can almost imagine Planet Terror doing better business on DVD anyway -- it has that (admittedly very deliberate) culty, Shaun Of The Dead vibe about it that I suspect will endear it to the teenage market.


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