Friday, April 25, 2008

It's About Time

You know, it takes someone truly feckless and eccentric to make Robert Rodriguez look like a really concise filmmaker. This film, part of the infamous Grindhouse pairing Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino put out last year, may not have struck me as such a success were it not followed by what I call the failure of Tarentino’s film, Death Proof. What happened to him, exactly? When did the name Quentin Tarentino start to elicit so many groans from one-time fans? I don’t know, but, what we have here is a complete reversal of expectation: Rodriguez’s film works in almost every way, it even succeeds in being The Thing tribute that Slither failed to be; Tarentino’s is the Shark Sandwich of his career. Who’s ready to hear me say something I hoped I would never say?

Planet Terror
by Robert Rodriguez
And here I thought no one could do filth right anymore. The plot is silly enough: a troop of military grunts seizes control of a base in Texas after a green gaseous toxin is released by a disreputable chemist named Abby who likes castrating his clients. It’s all very unclear and Italian, but the boys in uniform all walk right into the cloud of green gas that starts spraying everywhere. Meanwhile, a couple of slimy plot threads are all about to converge; a go-go dancer with the unfortunate stage name Cherry Darling leaves the stage in tears after one of her routines and heads to a barbeque joint where a cute mechanic named El Wray shoots the breeze with the proprietor TJ. TJ, as it turns out, is also the brother of the town’s sheriff, and El Wray, in a similar twist of fate, is Cherry’s ex-boyfriend. She walked out on him, leaving his pride less than intact and he’s been searching for her ever since. He agrees to give her a lift to town, but that plan goes south when they swerve to avoid missing a deer, flip the car on its side, and then the poor girl gets her leg torn off by a bunch of freaks in the woods. Wray gets hauled off by the sheriff for questioning (apparently Wray and the sheriff have met before in a professional capacity) and Cherry is committed to the E.R.

The hospital where she stays employs a strange bunch, indeed. There’s Dr. Block, the cuckolded wife of Dakota, the anesthesiologist (when we meet her she’s texting her lover with one hand and calling a babysitter with the other), Skip, the creepy paramedic who seems only to enter rooms at 45-degree angles and Dr. Felix (Rodriguez’s real-life MD), the disease obsessed physician who diagnoses the first zombie bite of the night. When Dakota’s girlfriend shows up in the ER with a big hole where her brain should be, Block (once again) becomes suspicious of his wife. When the incidence of viral infections and pussing sores becomes too high Felix skedaddles and Block decides to use his wife’s anesthetic needles to get some answers about her extra-marital activities; she barely escapes with her life. Her attempt to save her son goes about as poorly as possible (more on this later) and she (once again just barely) makes it alive to her father’s house. In the meantime Wray rescues Cherry from the hospital, and everyone heads to JT’s place. They agree that the safest thing to do is get out of town, but don’t get very far before the military stops them and brings the survivors back to base. In the military jail, Abby, the only survivor from the intro, explains how screwed everyone is. Wray, of course, doesn’t let this stop him from rescuing everyone and fashioning a fancy new set piece for his girlfriend to walk on (and save the day with).

I liked it. THERE! I said it. I liked the zombie comedy. How could I not, everyone looks like they're having a blast. And there's Michael Biehn, and he's hilarious. There are a few things every reader should probably be made aware of. The first: I generally hate horror comedies, especially zombie horror comedies. Occasionally, a Shaun of the Dead will come out of nowhere and make me forget all my reservations (it helps of course that Edgar Wright knew how to balance his influences), but for the most part the zombie comedy gets no love from me. Dead Alive, Cemetery Man, even Slither didn’t really do much for me. I think that it takes a really light touch for the zombie comedy to do anything but slip on its own entrails. One thing I’d never considered in the formula for success is what happens when instead of setting out to make a horror movie with comedic or romantic elements, you set out to make a straight-up comedy. This is actually an incredibly smart strategy because it means that every over-the-top element makes sense and is, for the most part, welcome. In a horror movie, for me anyway, every time we’re asked to accept a stupidly excessive trick (the zombie baby in Dead Alive, the banjo player in Dead & Breakfast) we are pulled out of the mission of the horror movie (which, need we forget, is to scare people) and told to laugh at something that’s genuinely tasteless. To have to go from laughter to sadness because the frat boy behind the camera thinks he’s clever is really irksome. (Aside: this whole notion of horror moviemaking where you “play with the conventions” is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever encountered. I thought they sent you to film school to step away from that bullshit!) This is, of course, to say nothing of the nonsense Tarentino's been up to. If I had to pick one word to sum up Death Proof, it would be 'Masturbatory'. Some people are looking into the future; he's stuck blowing himself for rediscovering some things in the past.

So, in the midst of my anger at the state of horror films, imagine my surprise when the person who comes along with a solution is my cinematic nemesis Robert Rodriguez. The second thing people should know about me is that Rodriguez and I have been in something a Sergio Leone type showdown ever since I rented From Dusk Till Dawn in the fourth grade. “I paid $5 for THIS!?” My friend and I spent that whole evening with our mouths open, wondering who thought this was a good idea. Evidently Quentin Tarentino thought it was great, cause he helped him direct it, wrote a big check for it, and put himself in the sleaziest role. Why couldn’t he have latched onto Wong Kar-Wai? I would have liked to have been able to see Fallen Angels in the theatre, and I don’t think I would have minded a Tarentino cameo either. Whatever genius Rodriguez once proved to everyone he possessed when he made El Mariachi, every film after that went a long way towards making everyone (himself included) forget that it had ever existed. Desperado? Spy Kids? From Dusk Till Dawn 2 and 3? Essentially he’s made a career out of making off-season Matrix type films that everyone in my high school loved. I didn’t get those films, and still don’t, for the most part. I’m a firm believer in needing more than breasts and explosions to make a film watchable. So, with all this on the table, let’s head back to the reason I’m writing this.

Planet Terror works in the one way I never thought it could: as a comedy. Having sat through Death Proof, I was fully expecting the Desperado of zombie films. What I got instead was the Airplane! of zombie films. Now, before we all get carried away, there were weak spots: the effects, namely. I’ve recently come to see that I really hate the Greg Nicotero School of gore effects. The excessive, breakneck vileness of his work really grosses me out in the wrong way. You’ve seen it in all of Rodriguez’s films and in Land of the Dead, Cabin Fever, and any number of made-for-sci-fi sequels and originals. I find it crass and think it’s deeply at odds with the Tom Savini and Rob Bottin effects I grew up on. I realized that his effects account for my dislike of a lot of recent horror films, but, they weren’t enough to make me dismiss Planet Terror, neither was Rodriguez’s insistence on using cheap effect shots whenever possible (explosions, men thrown out at cars and exploding under the wheels of trucks. I get that it’s supposed to be over-the-top, but this movie could have been perfect if he had just cut back a little bit). Also, why would you cast your son in a movie if you're just going to have him shoot himself in the face? For that...I...have no words.

The reason that no horror movie mistakes could ruin Planet Terror is because it’s not a horror film. It does perfectly capture the feel of old Italian horror films and it boasts everything that usually sinks a horror film, but it uses it to its advantage in the smartest way I’ve ever seen. It flaunts genre knowledge without being smug. Little things keep piling up outside the horror that loosen you up: the sheriff refuses to give Wray a gun in the most abject circumstances because he’s a criminal, Bruce Willis explains his war experience with all the gravitas he can muster, which includes accidentally killing Osama Bin Laden, Dr. Brock pops up in completely illogical locations to menace his wife with a syringe, El Wray rides a miniature motorcycle during a pulse-pounding chase; all of it is wonderfully hysterical. It’s much like watching the things that ruined some of the best and worst zombie movies all right in a row. It was immensely entertaining, and I just found myself laughing harder and harder (I even admit to not minding that preposterous machine gun leg thing; nevermind that it's completely impossible, that's precisely the point!). This is a labor of love with both a heart and a brain.
Interesting to note that the zombies towards the end look a good deal like the ones in Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City. And here I thought that movie would never help anyone! I guess anything really is possible.

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