Director: Robert Rodriguez
Once upon a time in Hollywood, there was a style of filmmaking known as the exploitation movie. Encompassing nearly every genre you could imagine, exploitation movies were low-budget B-movies that were often poorly made and poorly acted. But in order to make up for these shortcomings, these movies would feature ludicrous plots and excessive amounts of action, nudity, and/or graphic violence. The small amount of prints made of these movies would travel the country to sleazy "grindhouse" theaters and the slowly dwindling number of drive-in theaters, getting more and more abused the more times they were shown. And while the initial heyday of the exploitation movie had ended by the early-to-mid 1980s, some cinephiles remember them fondly. Such fans include renowned directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Outspoken fans of exploitation cinema, Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed up to create Grindhouse, a pair of B-movies screened back to back as a double feature. Grindhouse was an amazing failure at the box office, so in order to try and recoup some of their losses, the Weinstein Company separated Grindhouse's two halves Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof and gave them individual DVD releases. Planet Terror was my favorite of the Grindhouse double feature, and as a solo film, I think it still holds up as 105 minutes of pure entertainment.
Our story takes place in a small Texas town, a town whose citizens have plenty of problems. For starters, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) has just quit her unsatisfying job as a go-go dancer with the hopes of fulfilling her dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. But her road to happiness takes an unexpected turn when she accidentally runs into an old flame named El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), with whom she had a rather acrimonious breakup. El Wray isn't exactly having a smooth time of things either, as his shady criminal past has run him afoul of Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn). Meanwhile, at the hospital across town, anesthesiologist Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is planning on running off with her lesbian lover Tammy (Stacy Ferguson) and flee her horrible home life, but her abusive husband Bill (Josh Brolin) may be onto her scheme.
But little do the town's citizens know that an even greater problem is about to strike them all. On the outskirts of town, a deal between a mad scientist (Naveen Andrews) and a rogue military platoon's leader (Bruce Willis) goes bad, resulting in a noxious green gas being released into the town. And this gas raises all kinds of hell, infecting practically everyone who breathes it and turning them into a flesh-hungry zombie. A ragtag group of uninfected survivors are forced to band together in the name of survival, lest they become a meal for the army of ferocious cannibals.
How can someone really critique a movie like Planet Terror? Any flaw within the movie could just be dismissed as being intentional; it's the Snakes on a Plane syndrome. But what differentiates Planet Terror from Snakes on a Plane is that Planet Terror takes the "intentional B-movie" concept to an even more outrageous level. We're talking Slither multiplied by a hundred. Everything about Planet Terror is over the top to the point of comic absurdity. And that's what's so great about it. If it was played straight, then it would simply be a bad movie. But as a satire of bad movies, it ends up being a fantastic roller coaster ride.
Robert Rodriguez has been nicknamed "the one-man film crew," and with good reason. I think the only thing he didn't do in Planet Terror was act. He's producing, directing, writing, composing the music, running the camera crew, editing, and pretty much everything except for the special effects. And that really works in Planet Terror's favor. The style of movie that it's emulating didn't exactly have very large crews, so for a throwback to low-budget movies from the '70s and '80s to have one man doing nearly everything seems fitting. As usual, I guess I'll start by critiquing the direction. Rodriguez handles things extremely well, obviously having fun hitting all the directorial clichés he can. Though the movie looks a bit too good (thanks to the abundant CGI and the fact that Rodriguez shot the movie digitally), his use of scratches, blemishes, and distortions reigns it in and makes for a visually captivating movie. His music is fantastic too, echoing the music used in many of John Carpenter's early movies. Its synthesizer-infused electronic sound sounds like it might have been drawn from something like The Thing, and it is exactly what you would expect from a movie such as Planet Terror. Any B-movie worth its salt needs a suitable B-movie score, and this one is aces.
Rodriguez's screenplay, like his direction, also makes comedic use of certain horror movie clichés, particularly with the characters. There's the final girl, the mysterious rogue, the no-nonsense cop that doesn't trust the aforementioned rogue, the troubled family, a mad scientist, and a group of soldiers who aren't exactly the nicest guys. Every character makes some sort of contribution to the movie, none of them ever really going to waste. Rodriguez also makes sure to shoot for the true grindhouse experience by including things you'd be hard-pressed to find in other movies. A sly nod to the Evil Dead trilogy, via a character using a weapon as a prosthetic limb? Check. A morose and darkly hilarious moment with a seven-year-old who doesn't know how to properly handle a gun? Oh yeah. The world's most bizarre attempted rape? Sure, why not? Skipping a whole chunk of important plot points just play a prank on the audience? You better believe it. Put it all together, and Rodriguez has written perhaps the ultimate B-movie parody. All others need not apply.
Lastly is the acting, which is wonderful on pretty much all accounts. With a cast this large, a few bad apples aren't going to spoil the bunch too badly. But nearly everyone is on their A-game, which really makes Planet Terror that much more fun. There are a few people that I do have to mention, though. First up is Freddy Rodriguez, who is in full-blown "action hero" mode. His performance here is funny and exciting, and Rodriguez appears to have taken to the role like a fish to water. Josh Brolin also does a great job, making Doc Block into one of the creepiest scumbags I've seen in a while. Bruce Willis and Tom Savini are also fantastic in their small roles, and Quentin Tarantino's cameo is both very humorous and one of the movie's most disgusting sequences. Marley Shelton and Michael Biehn also hand in some decent work as well, and Rebel Rodriguez (son of the director) does fine, considering he's a child actor in only his second movie. But perhaps the highlight of the cast is the leading lady, Rose McGowan. The part is an absurd one how many movies star would-be comedians that have just quit their job as a go-go dancer, only to end up with a machine gun where their leg should be? but McGowan makes a fantastic go of it. She's amiable in the role, as well as really funny and a little sympathetic to boot. The role was specifically written for her, and she pulls it off successfully. This is her movie, for sure.
Planet Terror was probably best suited when it was released as half of Grindhouse, but as a stand-alone film, I still loved it. It's a silly movie that has a great blend of horror and comedy (mostly gallows humor, to be perfectly honest). Is it for everyone? No, of course not. But if you're into absurd, over-the-top B-movies, then Planet Terror will definitely be up your alley. So yours truly is going to give it a big thumbs up with four stars. How do you not like a movie like this?
Final Rating: ****