The National Association of Theatre Owners would beg to differ, but it's still possible in a few multiplexes across the land to "enjoy" the grindhouse experience.
You know, a theater with floors glazed in Coke and rotten Raisinets, upholstered seats you don't want to see with the lights up, a couple of drunks down in front providing running commentary, and maybe a guy in military camouflage with a bulging duffel bag, grunting to himself one aisle over.
"Admittedly, that was never the best part of it," says director Quentin Tarantino, waxing nostalgic about the days decades back when he'd venture into some grungy one-screen in downtown L.A. to see a cheapo vigilante flick or a babes-behind-bars thriller.
"There were definitely times I knew I was taking my life in my hands by going into that theater," he says, chuckling. "It just showed my intense commitment to cinema."
Still, for most folks going to Grindhouse - the double-feature package of Tarantino's Death Proof and his buddy Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, opening Friday - the venues will be tidy and tiered, with state-of-the-art cupholders for those $6 cappuccinos.
It's the stuff up on the screen - Tarantino's and Rodriguez's lesbian car-chase carnage and zombie-lust bloodfests - that will pay homage to the '60s and '70s exploitation indies. Not the theaters themselves.
"I think of it almost like a grindhouse ride," says Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), on the phone last week from Los Angeles. "I like the fact that we're turning the multiplex into the grindhouse. It's just a little safer. But if any gang violence breaks out during the course of the movie, or anything gets screwed up in the projection booth, a reel goes missing, that's all good. It just adds to the experience . . . it makes it all the more organic."
It was Sin City and Spy Kids director Rodriguez - looking at a poster he owned for a '50s hot-rod double bill (Drag Strip Girl and Rock All Night) - who came up with the idea of releasing two pics together. "Then, when I went to Quentin's house after making Sin City, he had the same poster," the director says, in a separate call last week. "I thought, 'Hey, you do one, and I do the other.' "
So off they went, psyched to re-create the look and feel of the vintage low-budget, no-star B-movies - produced outside the Hollywood mainstream - that got away with murder, so to speak, as far as blood, gore, gratuitous nudity and general outrageousness were concerned. The films, a staple of low-rent urban theaters - grindhouses - and outlying drive-ins, had "sexuality and brutality that was amped-up and crazed," Rodriguez says.
His entry, Planet Terror, which Rodriguez shot last spring around his hometown of Austin, Texas, is a mash-up of zombie horror and renegade-hero action - think George Romero's Dawn of the Dead crossed with John Carpenter's Escape from New York. (That's what Rodriguez was thinking.)
Freddy Rodríguez (no relation) plays the loner hero, Josh Brolin is a demented doc, and Rose McGowan is Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who loses a leg in a roadside zombie attack and has it prosthetically replaced - with a machine gun. Bruce Willis, Marley Shelton, lad-mag cover-girl chanteuse Fergie, and a hammy Tarantino also appear.
McGowan and other cast members show up in Tarantino's Death Proof, too.
Says Rodriguez: "We thought, wouldn't it be great, like when you go see a Pam Grier double feature, if it's two women-in-prison movies, she's a prisoner in one and the warden in the other? So we've got crossovers."
Tarantino, in his first directing foray since the 2003-04 Kill Bills, drew from high-octane car-chase pics (notably the '71 cult classic Vanishing Point) and slasher pics in which a maniac stalker preys on a bevy of nubile beauties (Tarantino cites Bob Clark's 1972 Yuletide terror, Black Christmas).
Death Proof was shot last fall over 10 weeks, more than half of it devoted to 100-m.p.h. car chases. His cast: Kurt Russell (yes, the Snake Plissken of Carpenter's Escape From New York) as Stuntman Mike, a scarred and lecherous stunt driver stalking a trio of fetching femmes, played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier (daughter of Sidney), Jordan Ladd, and Vanessa Ferlito. Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill), and Omar Doom (of Easton, Pa.) also star.
To complete the whole grindhouse experience, Rodriguez, 38, and Tarantino, 44, added "damage effects," post-production tweaks to make the prints look scratched, burned, jumpy and frayed, just like the exploitation fare that inspired them.
"Because they made so few prints, they would be scratched-up and worn-out," Rodriguez explains. "Projectionists would cut frames out of them for souvenirs. They were definitely chopped up and ragged by the time they ran their course."
So Grindhouse looks as though "by the time it's got to your city, it's all torn up, because that's how it was in the grindhouse era," he says.
"But it's used to dramatic effect, too. It's not really just aging for the sake of aging. What's cool is I got to use those as tools. . . . Usually your film grammar includes the fade, or the cross-fade, or the jump-cut, and that's about it. Now, you've got the splice-cut, you've got the film-burn, you've got the missing reel, you've got a lot of things to help accent the film dramatically.
"It's really sweet. I think people will get it."
Rodriguez (whom Tarantino calls "one of the greatest director/editors who ever lived. . . . He's right up there with Russ Meyer and Eisenstein") also had the idea to run a fake trailer before the films. His is for Machete, an action flick starring From Dusk Till Dawn's Danny Trejo as a chopper-riding, tattooed Mexican dude with an arsenal of deadly cutlery.
Tarantino recruited Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) and Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) to do more mock trailers. Roth's is for Thanksgiving, a holiday-pegged slasher flick that gave Grindhouse some problems when it was submitted to the MPAA ratings board. (The scene, now trimmed: a naked trampolinist doing splits coming down on a giant knife.) Wright did a '70s-style British horror thing called DON'T.
Metal-rocker-turned-movie-auteur Rob Zombie got in on the action as well.
"He came up to me at the Scream Awards back in October," Rodriguez says. "He had heard about the project, and he said he had a trailer idea. . . . 'Werewolf Women of the S.S.' I said, 'Say no more, go shoot it! You got me at Werewolf Women.' "
Whether Grindhouse prompts Rodriguez and Tarantino to do follow-ups remains to be seen. After Rodriguez appeared at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, reports hit the blogosphere that he was ready to really make Machete. He says he might. Or might not. In all probability, Sin City 2 will be his next project, and he could start on it as early as June.
Tarantino's going to promote Grindhouse around the globe over the next six months, and work on the screenplay to his long-announced World War II combat movie, Inglorious Bastards, back in his hotel room.
"The thing is," says the dimple-chinned movie-geek god, "we have this whole label of 'grindhouse' on this, and that works. But basically, I'm just doing genres I like, and subgenres, in particular. In this one, I'm dealing with slasher films, and I'm dealing with car-chase movies. And I'm doing it in the B-movie kind of way, but there are other kinds of genres I would love to explore."
Grindhouse Hit ListEight original grindhouse essentials, according to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino:
Blood Feast (1963) - Gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis' stalker cheapie is about a Miami killer who cuts up women's bodies in a quest to reconstruct an ancient Egyptian goddess.
Zombie (1964) - A.k.a. I Eat Your Skin, and released on a 1970 double bill with I Drink Your Blood. Rodriguez admires the cheesy horror of director Del Tenney's tale of a mad doc turning Caribbean natives into the wild-eyed undead.
Vanishing Point (1971) - Richard C. Sarafian's turbocharged cult car-chase flick stars Barry Newman as the driver of a Dodge Charger being pursued by cops in cars and 'copters.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) - Tarantino inserted a clip from John Hough's muscle-car mayhem movie in Jackie Brown. Peter Fonda (left) stars as a race-car driver/kidnapper, Susan George as his sexy sidekick, tearing down the highway, cops in hot pursuit.
Black Christmas (1974) - Bob Clark's proto-slasher classic was remade last year (with Death Proof ingenue Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Tarantino shows the original to his buddies every yuletide season in his private screening room.
Rolling Thunder (1977) - Tarantino's favorite vengeance movie, this John Flynn-directed tale is about a returning Vietnam vet (William Devane) chasing down the killers of his wife and kids. "I saw it on a double feature with Enter the Dragon, and it was better," he says.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) - George Romero's zombie masterpiece. Of zombie flicks, Rodriguez says, "It captures people's imaginations, to see this mass hysteria going on, and just the end of the world happening around them."
Escape From New York (1981) - About to be remade with 300's Gerard Butler, the John Carpenter-directed original starred Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a military hero-turned-convict who's got 22 hours to rescue the U.S. president from the high-security prison island of, yes, Manhattan.
- Steven Rea
Contact movie critic Steven Rea