Blu-ray Review: A Feature by Feature Look at ‘Grindhouse’!

Whenever the subject of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature Grindhouse comes up in conversation, nine times out of ten, whoever I’m talking to will say that it’s the best theatrical experience they’ve ever had, and it’s easy to understand why. The film is a celebration of exploitation cinema, a style that has engrained itself in our culture more than most realize, most prolifically in the action and horror genres. More importantly, it’s just plain old fun. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up on these double-billed exercises in excess, and they certainly show their love for them in the 2007 box-office experiment. In hindsight, it was very foolish for film aficionados to think Grindhouse would set the world on fire; these types of films never found a mainstream audience in the first place, and their collaboration proved that this type of film still isn’t appealing to the masses. It did remind us, though, that not all films are merely films; some of them are experiences and that’s what Grindhouse is really about. It replicated an experience that’s not widely accessible to theatre-goers around the world and because of that, it’s one of the most daring feats any filmmaker(s) has tried to accomplish during the last decade.
After its poor opening weekend, The Weinstein Company experimented with releasing the two features separately in theatres (which defeats the purpose of the experience and was luckily scrapped), and then released them on DVD separately in order to make their money back. The DVDs were met with mixed reactions; on the one hand, they featured extended versions of each film and loads of bonus features – both releases contained two discs (three if you bought the Best Buy steelbooks). On the flipside, three of the four faux-trailers were missing and there was no way to watch the theatrical cut unless you bought a bootleg, caught it on Starz, or bought a very expensive Japanese import. In the end, most fans were pissed but bought the releases anyway, even though they knew there would be a more comprehensive version released somewhere down the line (sounds like another certain “saga” we’re all familiar with… and Evil Dead). But approximately three years later, here we are with the “complete” Grindhouse on Blu-Ray, something many fans thought would never happen. But with Vivendi-Universal picking up the rights to many of the Weinstein’s catalog, did we end up with a quick cash-grab or a release that is everything a fan would ever want? More importantly, is this release worth the two introductory paragraphs I just wrote?

The answer to the latter is a resounding yes. Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s feature, is basically a remake of Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City by way of John Carpenter. Beautifully over-the-top and ridiculous, it features a go-go dancer with a machine gun for a leg, zombie-like creatures, Tarantino as a rapist, and more quips and puns than you could shake a stick at. It’s easily the most fun out of the two features and definitely the one I would watch the most. However, for what it is trying to imitate, it’s horribly overproduced and too expensive looking, despite the post-production artificial aging. Planet Terror is, in essence, how people fondly recollect a shitty movie as being much better than it was; it’s the idea of nostalgia in the flesh. Tarantino’s segment, Death Proof, is a slasher flick with a car instead of a knife. Due to its slow, plodding pace, dialogue that goes nowhere, cheap look, and limited amount of awe-inspiring scenes, it emulates an exploitation film more accurately than Planet Terror, but is not as entertaining by a long shot. A lot of exploitation films have become more readily available since Grindhouse‘s release and if you’ve checked out some of them, I’m sure you’d agree with me that a good portion of them are pretty similar to how I described Tarantino’s segment. But that’s just the nature of how the films were made: they had no budget, but enough exploitable elements to make a clever poster and cobble together a trailer filled with nothing but money shots.

While the two films are completely different surface-wise, neither one of them manage to strike the right balance of appearance vs. content; in a way, that makes them poorly conceived and, by default, an exploitation film, which then makes them successful in what they were trying to accomplish. But slap some faux-trailer before and between the features (Rodriguez’s balls-to-the-wall action opus Machete; Rob Zombie’s sexy-Nazi torture flick Werewolf Women Of The S.S.; Edgar Wright’s American International Pictures trailer homage Don’t; and Eli Roth’s holiday-themed slasher Thanksgiving), and now you have possibly the most comprehensive and wide-ranged love letter to a genre that, up until a few years ago, felt like nothing but a forgotten relic. As a whole, Grindhouse is an experience, not a film. Neutered of its original format, the separate films are just that: merely films (though they’re both good for different reasons).

In terms of presentation, I’m sure many of you have some reservations about seeing a film that’s supposed to look beat up and old on Blu-Ray. Grindhouse looks about as good as a terrible looking film is supposed to look in high-definition, so those with worries can put them to rest. Shot digitally, Planet Terror looks the most polished out of the two features, but all the scratches, grain and cigarette burns are still intact and as glorious as ever. Death Proof, shot on film, has a more distinctive appearance than its counterpart, as the first half of the film looks like it’s been beat to death, and the second half is devoid of almost any damage and looks as crisp and clear as any modern day film on Blu-Ray – which was intention, as this was supposed to demonstrate what happened to cheap films when only 10 prints were made and circulated around the country non-stop for years, only to have certain parts of them damaged more than others.

The audio portion is bound to cause the most controversy, as the Blu-Ray is missing a lossless audio track. In fact, it’s the same Dolby 5.1 mix used on the DVDs. This is kind of inexcusable, as the Blu-Ray has around 8 gigs of unused space according to my PC-drive. Certainly, on a 50-gig disc, someone could have fit an improved audio track on there.

The extras, while extensive, are not all encompassing, although there seems to have been a lot more time and effort put into this release than most box-office disappointments these days. There are some glaring omissions, such as the scratch-free version of Planet Terror included on the original Blu-Ray stand-alone releases; Grindhouse 101 – a SXSW 2007 panel featuring Rodriguez and AICN head honcho Harry Knowles – and Welcome To The Grindhouse, both included as bonus discs in the Best Buy steelbook sets; and the extended versions of each feature which, while not as great as the “experience”, are readily available. If you really want to be a completist, you would need to own the steelbooks, the Planet Terror Blu-Ray, the hardcover making-of book (which features a lot of really good stunt information not included in the bonus materials), and possibly the Japanese release. Oddly missing, and not available by any means thus far, are any bonus materials for Machete (presumably left for the feature-length release Fox will put out) and an extended trailer for (though, there might not be one). Also, this is a Blu-Ray only release, meaning that only HD adopters have a chance to watch a legit release. Aside from the aforementioned concerns, there is a bevy of materials included over two discs that will keep you busy for quite a few hours and, in the end, puts the finishing touches on a shockingly good release for an amazing experience. Here’s hoping Vivendi can make as good a release for Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair as they have for Grindhouse.

Special Features
Disc 1

Planet Terror Commentary – New drinking game: every time you hear Rodriguez refer to Planet Terror as a “low-budget” feature and realize how ironic that is, take a swig. You’ll be drunk 20 minutes in. All kidding aside, the track is fairly useless considering almost all the same information is explored on other features in the set. Some of the highlights include on-set stories (a few about Marley Shelton are worth a chuckle or two), and his experiences watching the film with theatre audiences. And for those wondering, yes, this is the same exact track from the extended release.

Planet Terror Audience Reaction Track – Recorded at a screening of the film (presumably in Austin, TX, but the box nor insert state where), the track provides lots of hooting and hollering from a rowdy crowd. The idea of having a reaction track is cool, but it overstays its welcome by the end of the Machete trailer. It exists solely as a curiosity because there are too many silent bits – not as many as when it was first released with the extended cut, mind you – and it’s very hard to differentiate between the on-screen sounds and the audience’s own yelps during the action-heavy scenes.

Thanksgiving Commentary – Eli Roth and co-writer/star Jeff Rendell gab about their holiday slasher goof, touching on some of the points further explored in the making-of feature on the second disc, and also pointing out EVERYONE on-screen and their relation to them. Maybe it’s just me, but Jeff sounds like he called in to record his portion.

Disc 2

Planet Terror
Robert Rodriguez’s 10-Minute Film School (11:50) – Right off the bat, Rodriguez answers the big question (how the hell did he do the gun-leg?), and then moves into how he kept the cost down as much as possible so that Tarantino could have his half of the budget to shoot his portion of Grindhouse. A lot of information is given on how he gave it the low-budget look, and why he chose to put more skips and scratches during certain segments of the film. Most of the featurette focuses on the CGI shots in the film, and is a much watch for budding film directors. Rodriguez has basically got his own American Zoetrope going on in Austin, and it’s very cool. The MPAA is discussed briefly, but Rodriguez actually thought cutting the film made it better. However, if you have the extended cut on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can make that decision for yourself.

The Badass Babes Of Planet Terror (11:49) – This basically goes through the 5 women’s roles in the film, starting with Rose’s penchant for improvisation, moving onto Marley’s floppy wrists and Fergie getting bitten by Quentin while on set, and ending with the lovely Babysitter Twins’ on-screen antics.

The Guys Of Planet Terror (16:30) – This is basically the flipside to the previous featurette. But, I will say, learning that the film is really about one man’s journey to find a BBQ recipe completely changed the experience of Planet Terror for me.

Casting Rebel (5:38) – Rodriguez talks about working with his son, Rebel, and a few of the other actors and actresses chime in about how fearless and adventurous the little guy is. Rodriguez also discusses how he filmed alternate scenes with his son where his character lives, and still has yet to tell him that he actually dies halfway through.

Sickos, Bullets And Explosions: The Stunts Of Planet Terror (13:16) – As a flipside to the Film School vignette, this one focuses on the stunts and practical effects in the film. It covers everything from the training the actors went through to which stunts were performed by doubles.

The Friend, The Doctor, And The Real Estate Agent (6:40) – Probably one of the most oddball topics for an extra, Rodriguez discusses how he casted his friend, his personal doctor, and his real estate agent in bit parts in Planet Terror and the reasons behind it.

Planet Terror Poster Gallery – A collection of posters and lobby cards for both Machete and Planet Terror. The Japanese poster for the latter is especially awesome.

Death Proof
Stunts On Wheels: The Legendary Drivers Of Death Proof (20:39) – Tarantino basically got every famous stunt driver he could get his hands on to shoot Death Proof, including Buddy Joe Hooker (White Lightning). Their work is comprised of all the money shots in the film, and Tarantino explains his enthusiasm working with them. Unfortunately, there isn’t much talk of HOW the stunts were done, just what was done and how cool it looked.

Quentin’s Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke (4:36) – Tarantino rants and raves about how much he loves his editor, and then the crew says “Hi, Sally!” for about 2 minutes straight during various takes. In a word: cute.

The Guys Of Death Proof (8:14) – Although a big chunk of it is devoted to Kurt Russell, Tarantino also talks about casting Michael and Jason Parks, Eli Roth, Omar Doom, and Michael Bacall, who might have written a little film you’ve never heard of called Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.

Kurt Russell As Stuntman Mike (9:32) – While the previous featurette talked up Russell a little, this one is a full-blown love-fest for Snake Plissken. Tarantino gushes over how much he loves Russell and how much he understands the character. The initial idea to cast Russell came while sitting on Rodriguez’s set, when the two directors came up with the revelation that Planet Terror was a long-lost Carpenter flick and all they needed was Russell. What really surprised me about this is how much driving Russell actually did. I kind of wish Tarantino had touched on the other actors he thought of casting somewhere on the disc, because I thought the original idea of having Jeff Jarrett was kind of brilliant.

Finding Quentin’s Gals (21:13) – Tarantino talks up how he casted every single woman in the film, how he altered the roles for them, and whether or not he originally had them in mind for their roles. What was especially cool about this featurette is that it features a scene or two that aren’t in either version of Death Proof, so there is still unseen footage out there somewhere. Does that mean there will be ANOTHER double dip down the line? Who knows.

The Uncut Version Of “Baby, It’s You” Performed By Mary Elizabeth Winstead (1:46) – An uninterrupted take of MEW singing along with her iPod to the aforementioned song. She’s actually pretty dang good. If you’re wondering why this scene isn’t in the film, don’t fret that you’re going crazy; it’s only featured in the extended version, which sadly is not included in the set.

Introducing Zoë Bell (8:57) – Working with Tarantino previously in Kill Bill, Zoë plays … well, herself in Death Proof with great enthusiasm. Everyone in the cast and crew talks about their experiences working with her as she tackles dual roles on the film.

Double Dare Trailer (2:34) – A trailer for a stuntwoman documentary featuring Jeanine Epper and Zoë Bell. As of this writing, it’s been added to my queue.

Death Proof Extended Music (10:28) – Both Guido and Maurizio De Angelis’ `Gangster Story’, and Franco Micalizzi’s `Italia A Mano Armata’ are featured in longer versions than in the film.

Death Proof Poster Gallery – A few lobby cards are viewable as a manual slideshow, though none of them are especially eye-grabbing.

All-New Grindhouse Bonus

Planet Terror
Robert Rodriguez’s 10-Minute Cooking School (8:30) – Rodriguez is back with his cooking-show antics, which was sorely missed from the original Planet Terror release – I’m dead serious, I love these. In this entry, we’re shown how to cook ribs, brisket and BBQ sauce, Texas Style. This made me miss visiting Iron Works in Austin and chowing down.

The Makeup Effects Of Planet Terror (12:02) – Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini (even though he was just an actor in the film) talk about the practical effects featured in the film, of which there are plenty. Consulting medical journals to make sure the infection looked realistic enough (and even explains the stages of their deterioration), Nicotero claims there was one big gag per night for about 50 nights, which was the entire production. There’s some raw footage of effects, which is always interesting and appreciated in these sorts of featurettes, and he even shows how you can make a pus-filled tongue at home!

Death Proof
The Hot Rods Of Death Proof (11:46) – Tarantino spends much of the time reminiscing about the history of car chases in film and, once again, the actual mechanics of the stunts are glossed over minutely. He touches on the difficulty of the shoot a little more elaborately than on previously releases, but not by much. Oh, and by the end of this, you’ll realize how much Australians love car chases, which Tarantino also talked about in the Ozploitation documentary, Not Quite Hollywood, which I give my highest recommendation to.

From Texas To Tennessee: The Production Design Of Death Proof (8:01) – After watching this, I’m beginning to think all the special features are designed to make me miss Austin. Production Designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner discuss shooting at the Texas Chili Parlor, designing a hyper-realistic version of Guero’s, how the film’s design revolved around pieces of art that Tarantino loves, and making breakaway gags on set – some of which were very clever.

Trailers
Extended Werewolf Women Of The S.S. Trailer (4:59) – The longest of the extended trailers (unless you count Machete, which got its own feature), Werewolf actually plays out much better this way. I’ve got two words for you: Nazi gorilla. On top of that, there’s a different score, more gore, more nudity, and unfortunately more of Sheri Moon Zombie singing. An optional commentary with Rob Zombie is available, and hearing that the set they used was actually a children’s summer camp made me laugh uncontrollably. He explains that he shot enough footage to make one-third of a feature, although not all of that is available here, considering it’s only 5 minutes long.

The Making Of Werewolf Women Of The S.S. Trailer (8:48) – Zombie ramps up his sarcasm during this making-of, which makes exploring the ridiculous nature of the trailer much more enjoyable. There are interviews with most of the cast, and a few scenes not included in either version of the trailer. Sybil Danning is mysteriously absent from the interview segment, and after all the enthusiasm Zombie had for her while casting for the trailer, it’s kind of sad.

Extended Don’t Trailer (1:35) – Easily my favorite trailer of the bunch, Edgar Wright’s homage to the incomprehensible nature of American trailers for European horror films doesn’t differ much from its original counterpart, though it does feature a separate end-credit sequence. The frenzied nature of the trailer allows for nothing but money shots, and I think that’s what really makes it stand out. Wright offers an optional commentary, which points out most of the cast, and several nods and tidbits he threw in there. Gotta love that Suspiria reference!

Don’t Storyboard/Trailer Comparison (1:40) – It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be, along with an optional commentary with Wright. He talks about the differences between the two, and the necessity of some of the changes. One thing I had no clue about: his brother, Oscar, works with him on storyboards for all his flicks.

The Making Of Don’t Trailer (9:40) – Wright’s behind-the-scenes featurettes are always fun to watch, and the one for Don’t is no exception. Wright talks about shooting with an unfamiliar cast, the cameos from his rogue gallery of players, and the thought process behind the disjointed nature of each scene – the rushed nature of the production (it was shot in 2