In my review for that other member of the Grindhouse double bill, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, I briefly laid out the history of his and Robert Rodriguez’s ill fated plan to bring back the notoriously grimy cinema going experience from the 70’s (spoiler alert: general audiences stayed away in droves). But with Rodriguez’s half – the far more fun/ridiculous Planet Terror – we actually get a weird glimpse of the future as the failure of Grindhouse wasn’t quite enough to get it out of his system as he insisted in turning a fake trailer for Mexploitation thriller, Machete, into a franchise of its own – and why shouldn’t he? Rodriguez has always marched to the strum of his own guitar and Planet Terror actually turns out to be the most balls-out fun the director has had since From Dusk Till Dawn as he let’s his deranged sense of humour run riot in a frenetic tale of zombies, BBQ, go-go dancers and castration as a hobby.
In rural Texas, sardonic go-go dancer Cherry Darling finally quits her job to fulfil her dream of doing literally anything else with her life that she can and after nearly getting run over by an ominous military convoy, bumps into mysterious ex El Wray at the greasy BBQ parlour of sauce-obsessed, good old boy, J.T.. As they awkwardly reconnect after their messy break-up, the military convoy, led by the rogue Lt. Muldoon, pulls up to do a shifty deal with the even shiftier chemical engineer Abby for large amounts of a chemical bio agent dubbed DC2 which obviously has zombifiying side effects, but the deal goes sideways (because of course it does) and the gas is released into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile at the local hospital, bisexual Dr. Dakota Block is plotting to leave her psychotic, abusive husband, Dr. William Block and take her moderately creepy son with her, but her plans hit a sizable speed bump in the form of the inevitable zombie outbreak and she has to now somehow evade a goopy horde of infected monsters with a pair of anesthetized hands courtesy of her enraged spouse and get her son to her estranged father, Tarantino and Rodriguez regular Texas Ranger Earl McGraw.
Elsewhere, Cherry recuperates after a zombie encounter has left her one leg short (not exactly great news for a go-go dancer), but once El Ray has finished butting heads with the local, hard-boiled sheriff, everyone makes a break for J.T.’s BBQ shack to regroup.
Soon Lt. Muldoon re-enters the fray and takes the survivors prisoner in order to do experiments on them to find a cure in order to cure his already infected men (constant exposure to DC2 staves off zombieism because – reasons), but he hasn’t reckoned on El Wray’s secret weapon, a pissed off go-go dancer with a machine gun leg.
As I mentioned earlier, out of the two Grindhouse installments, Planet Terror is by far the best, but if we were being picky, neither movies particularly followed the brief. While Tarantino eventuslly dropped the simulated film grain, jumping frames and missing reel gimmicks by Dreath Proof’s halfway point, Rodriguez embraces it wholesale using it to highlight the bizarre intensity of his unhinged visuals – however, instead of following the crusty, 70’s aesthetic, the director actually bases his movie on the, dystopian, anti-hero influences of John Carpenter and fuses it with some Sam Raimi-style distaste for logic with a machine gun leg (surely the natural progression from Bruce Cambell’s chainsaw arm) that would be utterly impossible to fire.
Still, as an 80’s horror parody, Planet Terror fucking rules; stunningly violent and unrepentantly silly it takes it’s bewildered cast of genre stalwarts and drops them in at the deep end as they amusingly try to adapt to the on-the-nose acting style of a no-budget gore-flick. Everyone here is in on the joke; from grizzled old timers Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey and Michael Parks to enthusiastic stars Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton and Josh Brolin and it’s the women folk who endure the coolest/nastiest shit. Whether its McGowan, constantly offbalance (physically and mentally) thanks to various makeshift prosthetic legs, tottering her way to becoming an action goddess thanks to an encounter with the melting penis of a cameoing Tarantino (long story), to Marley Sheldon trying to negotiate two thirds of the movie with hands floppier than a dead fish, they both rise to the occasion to lay some air-punching pain in their aggressors.
It’s here where Rodriguez unsurprisingly hits his stride. Unconcerned with such trivial matters as plot coherence and logic, the director unloads a dump truck load of his trademark, outlandish quirks to impressively tickle the funny bone of gore hounds and action junkies alike.
Malformed zombies recoil from bullet squibs that must be the size of basketballs, heads burst at the rate of Tiktok account for zit-popping (we’ve all seen ’em) and the sight of Freddy Rodriguez shooting shambling ghouls in his path as he tear-asses down the road on a pocket bike it worth the price of admission alone (not that anyone paid it). Even granite-scowled, Hollywood gumpy-puss Bruce Willis is in on the joke as the villain of the piece, giving an impassioned account of his tragic backstory that’s part Richard Shaw from Jaws, part Ed Harris from The Rock while his mutated skin bubbles like over-heated pizza.
Some may write Planet Terror off as an adolescent lover letter to a style of low-rent movie its director is obviously viewing through rose-tinted glasses – and they’d be right, sort of – but that’s also the point. These weird movies, for all their story telling flaws, bizarre subject matter and micro-budgets, are also extraordinarily fun and the movie gets this across by dutifully following in their footsteps by having a distinct lack of rules.
Still, if nothing else, you also get special effects guru Tom Savini torn to shreds, a perfectly timed “missing reel” joke and a melting Quentin Tarantino shot in the dick with a grenade launcher – what’s not to love.
Proudly joining the ranks of other deranged horror comedies that also have a healthy disregard for good taste such as Evil Dead II, Bad Taste and – yes – From Dusk Till Dawn, Planet Terror ploughs as much talent as it can into being magnificently stupid and success wonderfully. It’s just a shame that the director fell down the wannabe-grindhouse rabbit hole by churning out two Machete films….
Anyway, if you love gory thrills and ridiculous spills, DO let the bastards grind(house) you down.