I don’t know, man. Death Proof isn’t really a movie. It’s an idea, and as an idea, it can’t be separated from the way it was released. Its release was very much the whole point of its existence, even separate from the actual film that was produced to facilitate that release. On its own, there isn’t a whole lot going on in Death Proof, although small pleasures, including an awe-inspiring final reel, abound. So…
Let us begin with the obvious: Grindhouse is a confused beast, asking to indulge in two feature length works of varying quality (both between the two and within individual features) that do not tackle the grindhouse aesthetic from the same vantage point as one another. On top of this, we have four trailers that do not adopt the spirit of the movies around them, nor are those four trailers in unison with one another. Let us approach this murderers’ row: Robert Rodrigeuz’s Planet Terror, a high-flying zombie movie starring Rose McGowan and a postmodern descent into the aesthetic that tackles it to the ground so hard it that words like “luridest” must be invented to explain it away. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, a confusing beast of a somber, stoic serial killer film starring Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a killer with a car as a weapon. Stopping and starting in fits and spurts, Death Proof subverts expectations by rejecting and even flaunting the audience’s desire to be wowed by its lunacy. For it is, in contrast to Planet Terror, not a lunatic of a joke, but an actual film, played straight. On their own, then, we have two films that are very much of a different order and a different form, but we will get back to this.
First, four trailers. One, Edgar Wright’s Don’t Scream is an out and out satire of horror movies that pokes fun at the moralism of the slasher genre in the early ’80s (a bit of a shame, considering the other films/ trailers intervene before the thought of the 1980s and tackle the more honestly exploitative ’60s and ’70s). The other three are relatively faithful to the style, with Rodriguez’s own Machete a touch over-baked but in exactly the ways a trailer for a film like Machete is supposed to be over-baked. The highlights, though, are Werewolf Women of the SS and Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, a wonderfully studied take on John Carpenter’s Halloween trailer that tackles slasher overload with a blunt-force trauma very much at home in the spirit of the genre. As for Werewolf Women of the SS, the brainchild of who else but Rob Zombie, it is perhaps the most spirited of the bunch, and the most accurate and truthful encapsulation of the exploitation trailer in the entire film. Best of all, its joke, even its raison d’ etre, is that it cannot but seem a satire, even though everything it depicts is entirely and vocally plausible within the exploitation aesthetic.
Trouble is, Grindhouse is not simply two feature length movies and four trailers. It is “two feature length movies and four trailers” as an entity in and of itself. This product has a flow all its own, a flow that befuddles as much as it slithers around an actual point. This flow, by the way, is destroyed on home video viewing, splintering two films meant to be seen together into a fractured, lesser bifurcation. In context, however – and Grindhouse is a film for which context matters by definition– it matters very much that Planet Terror came first in the theatrical release, blockaded by each of the four trailers. It matters very much that we move down the path of increasing absurdism, hit a peak in the trailers that plateau the film (Machete excepted, for it began the whole feature in theaters). And it matters very much that Death Proof comes last. The reason: it is not the film we expect, and this statement holds true no matter what side of the coin you fall on. It is not a conventional Tarantino film, or at least it is the laziest of all his films, and it never even attempts his usual highs. More surprising: it is not the loop we expected, almost never even glancing at the thought of topping its preceding features. It is a different beast altogether, straightforward and quiet when we expect flourishes aplenty. It is even, and this is a word no one would dream of using for anything else in the feature, legitimately sinister in a mundane fashion.
Some have even gone to bat for Death Proof as an intentional disappointment, an argument which can’t but rest on auteur theory to legitimize. But this point holds merit and boasts a certain fascination as an explanation of the way films exist not as self-contained subjects but as objects in a world surrounded by other films. If Death Proof is relatively mundane, well, like it or not, a healthy portion of exploitation films at their core are fairly mundane. This is where sincerity comes in, and taking up this opinion makes a significant amount of sense in the context of the stated intent of this project: to recreate the experience of going to a grindhouse double-feature of exploitation films Namely, Death Proof is a relatively straight-faced exploitation film, and even a work of unexpected competence and sense. And sense, as we know, is the enemy of good bad movies, making Death Proof a bad bad movie because it is a competent “actual” film. It is nowhere near the delirious “high” we might expect (a high given to us by Planet Terror, a much giddier self-exploration of the highs of its genre).
In fact, it is very possible that it is supposed to be a drag, that it delays its payoff interminably and wanders around because, well, that is what a heaping load of exploitation films do. The odd, unspeakable structure of Death Proof gives us a sustained build and pay-off, followed by a vague, standoffish middle that may be intentionally turgid, which is itself followed by a car chase of tactile physicality that is the undeniable highlight of the whole project, but not enough of a highlight to be worth the everyday earlier portion. Which is to say, the film fumbles the ball, but it may fumble with purpose. Death Proof is reliably honest in the way it admits that all those other “modern exploitation films” really don’t get the idea of an exploitation film. They really don’t understand, Tarantino tells us as the elder statesman of modern exploitation-connoisseurs, that a fair margin of exploitation films are unexpected failures, films whose mistakes are not that they are bad but that they do not revel in their badness. As films, in other words, many are forgettable, and so is Death Proof.
In essence, while many modern exploitations are fakes, would-be comedies propositioning us with their faux honesty, Grindhouse begins this way and then closes by giving us the real deal in Death Proof. Planet Terror is the modern “fake” exploitation film, and Death Proof the big-deal classic of the genre. Which, honestly, makes it hard to judge. This is not an altogether well-working gesture, for it exists in opposition to itself. It asks the film to move simultaneously in two directions: the specific and the generalized, and the knowing honesty of Tarantino’s film does not mesh well with Planet Terror’s populist silliness. Except, and this is a tall order, if the point is that they don’t mesh well. At a fundamental level, it asks us to come to terms with our love of exploitation cinema. And it asks this of the directors too.
Which is a puzzle, honestly. It cripples the works as stand-alones, and honestly, as emotional experiences even when viewed together. Death Proof never aspires to much, and Planet Terror aspires too broadly to land a number of its blows, even if enough of the stream-of-consciousness schtick sticks in the end. But this patchwork Frankenstein’s monster stumbles upon a loftier, and admittedly more clinical, goal: a more sustained commentary on the idea of movie-going as much as movie-making. It’s a bit high-brow and stuffy, but it comes from the heart. A heart, admittedly, that you have to be in on the “know” to get, especially with Death Proof, not a work that looks to satirize movies but an honest-to-god movie itself, steely and determined and even safe. This makes it “better” in the formal principles, a better film. But better in the sense that it is competent rather than wonderfully inept.
In the context of its “film-going” experience in relation to Planet Terror and the trailers, however, it is an intellectual treatise on the differences between exploitation films as we think of them and exploitation films as they were. It’s a little snidely, a little self-critique at the expense of the movie-going public expecting a certain kind of descent into high-camp or silliness. On its own, it is a competent film. In its original context, it is a competent film about its own competence. Even more, it is a private joke, and whether you are laughing with it or at it depends on where you are coming from. If that sounds interesting (as it does to me), well, there you go. But it is an alienating gesture to the bone.