Friday, 11 July 2014

A Planetful of Terror

Zombies have previously shambled along this blog doing the zombie shuffle, but this post is more of a focus on one zombie movie in particular... and Planet Terror is that movie. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and released as part of a double feature with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof under the title of Grindhouse, it is a superb homage to the type of films that would be shown in grindhouse theatres, namely exploitation movies.

Movies with posters like this.

According to Popcorn Horror, exploitation films were "[t]ypically very low budget, these types of films would often be seen to 'exploit' a trend, niche or controversy - such as sex, violence, or drug use". Essentially cashing in on cheap schlock value by exploiting some aspect or other in the name of promotion, exploitation films were generally of poor quality, not only in terms of story or acting, but also of film stock, grainy and damaged due to their limited budget and lack of care.

In the pursuit of authenticity, Planet Terror has grainy footage in spades, with some clips looking like they were smacked over the head with a spade and were trying to focus while dealing with a ringing concussion.

No, really. It's meant to look like that.
And Bruce Willis really needs to moisturize, his skin's starting to boil.

But while Death Proof is arguably is a better movie, Planet Terror is a better homage to grindhouse cinema. For while the former feels like a high-brow tribute to exploitation films, the later feels like an exploitation film itself, embodying the qualities of those films such that it feels like one of them, not an outsider admiring them from afar but never letting itself truly be one of them. And this isn't just in regards to the grainy footage or over the top bloodsplosions,

That is actually a person they're running over, not a bag of blood and guts.
Don't worry, it's perfectly normal to make that mistake.

But also the purposefully hamfisted dialogue and stilted interactions between the characters, who themselves are triple distilled archetypal stock characters stripped down to the barest of cliches and one dimensional character traits:

-the stripper with a heart of gold who becomes empowered (with a machine gun leg!)
-the stoic badass dropping sarcastic one liners
-the stubborn sheriff who doesn't listen to the stoic badass or acknowledge the situation until it's too late
-the jealous violent psychopath husband
-the cheating wife who's cheating with a woman because her husband is a psychopath
-she's also a sexy nurse
-the simple good-natured cook
-the bad guy who's bad because he's bad and in the military so there

And so on...

For example, this is how the interpersonal conflict between the stoic badass and the stubborn sheriff is resolved. Right after the

There is no missing reel. The implied sex scene is a lie!

we see the BBQ shack where the heroes are holed up in flames, and the stubborn sheriff has been shot... by his deputy. As he lays bleeding on the floor, he reconciles with Wray, our stoic badass, by telling him things would have been different if he'd [actual dialogue] “known that you were EL Wray”. He then proceeds to tell his deputy to let Wray keep the gun he was gonna take away from him, and to "give him all the guns". This all because he's name is El Wray and not simply Wray.

That dramatic reversal of the sheriff's attitude towards him is based solely on the fact his name is proceeded by 'El' which is supposedly makes him some mythical badass he can now trust, instead of the criminal he judges guilty and not worthy of trust the whole movie up to this point, despite seeming like the only person who knows what's going on and goes all badass assassin on the zombies. It is so stupid, yet so profoundly ridiculous in its attempt to give the stoic badass the respect and authority we know he should have got in the beginning of the zombie apocalypse because duh, that it's brilliant. There's no time for gradual character development when zombies need a-killing.

These zombies.

And these aren't just regular zombies with slowly decaying bodies, these zombies are covered in boils, leaking puss from lesions, their flesh mutated and bloated. Because "Rodriguez knows these exploitation films too well, and uses special effect hero Greg Nicotero superbly. They know blood is passe; failing to freak anyone out. Boils and lesions, however, are disgusting. So you use the boils to sell the squirting blood".

And there are a lot of boils in Planet Terror... they're just like, everywhere. Protruding, misshaping, oozing,
and exploding. In a way, Rodriguez's zombies are a cross between the shambolic slow-moving corpse of old, and the new breed of infected 'zombies' seen in 28 Days Later and later recent zombie movies. For not only is the zombie outbreak caused by an airborne biological weapon, infecting the town, but the boil zombies just have to smear their juices on someone to infect them too. 

So, Rodriguez is tapping into our collective fear of infection and biological warfare while simultaneously combining the revulsion, yet strange compulsion to pop, we tend to have towards boils and the uncanny nature of the reanimated corpse. 

All in the name of a tribute to schlock value B movies that made better posters than they were movies.

To be fair, Planet Terror had some bombastic posters.

Which raises another thing, the iconography of a stripper with a machine gun for a leg has to be one of the most awesome and inspired images in cinematic history. It combines two ultimate male fetishes (boobs and guns) into one harmonious whole, transforming the character into this symbol of sexy badassery.

Who somehow incorporates her strip routine into dodging a missile because of course she does.

Did I mention her name is Cherry Darling? Because it is and I couldn't even make a joke about that because Rodriguez knows how absurd of a name that is, and that's the point.

For, by succumbing to the exploitative nature of the films it is paying tribute to, Planet Terror becomes more than a film consisting of references, since there is no trace of irony or winking nods in it. Rather it IS a grindhouse film. Just one made with all the knowledge of how the genre operates and how best to exploit it.

And yes, I'm really going to end on that pun. Deal with it.

References:

What is an Exploitation Film?

Halloween Endurance Test: Planet Terror

Planet Terror Wikipedia Page

Planet Terror Wikia

Exploitation Films Wikipedia Page

Grindhouse Wikipedia Page

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