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Planet Terror (2007)
Director: Robert Rodriguez

review by Paul Higson

You shouldn't need telling that the Planet Terror on release in the UK is the Robert Rodriguez half of the double horror bill titled Grindhouse (the second film being Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, released recently), that went so horribly wrong in the American multiplexes. Clearly, grindhouse into multiplex does not go. It also shows up the shortcomings of the young audience who profess to have the cool aesthetic understanding of exploitation films of the era, something they have been convincing themselves of since Wes Craven's Scream. The spoilt little bastards, though, never understood the joy of rattling projectors and blushing prints, or the double bill itself. Give them three hours of Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson and they get it. Divide that running time by two casts and two stories and the fuckers are baffled, even when it is spelled out to them. But then the young audience is different now.

Back in the era of the double bill they were more respectful of the films, given that there might not be a second chance to see them on another format, on television or in a cinema again. The goldfish swim in, watch, swim out and forget (normally distracted by sledgehammer advertising from discussing what they have just seen). But the old respect was the UK experience and not an actual grindhouse experience. In the American grindhouse, reputedly, sex and death could just has easily occur in the auditorium as it would on the screen, the fleapit, somewhere to rub crotches, shoot up or sleep your tramp ass off from the day's mind-fuddling hooch. Separated shortly after birth, both Death Proof and Planet Terror were allowed to grow a few inches before taking their first foreign holidays. Planet Terror comes one month after the release of Death Proof, and now runs 105 minutes, immediately defying the 90-minute average running time of the budget-restricted horrors that it seeks to emulate.

Although these films profess to take their inspiration and pay homage to the independent exploitation cinema of the period 1969-82 it is actually the late 1980s' horror film that Planet Terror more readily invokes. Unfortunately, that includes the subhuman meltdowns of Troma, and shoddy shenanigans of Decoteau, the blundering of Armed Response and pitiful abandon of Return Of The Living Dead 2 or The Curse. The film never quite aims for, never mind trying to achieve, the merits of Mangine's Neon Maniacs, Barwood's Warning Sign, Russell's The Blob remake, or Muro's Street Trash. Planet Terror is played for stupid laughs and, though ultimately enjoyable, the battle between the pus-filled flesh eating mutants and the townsfolk on screen is less than the battle of the viewer to like the film.

The moments in which it wins you back are unevenly spaced out and but luckily there throughout the final half hour finale of concommittal silliness. It rescues the film but for most of its running time Planet Terror is an insulting ride for the viewer. I could have waited to see this on home entertainment release, and it would have been more appropriate to see it that way too, given that the film is closer to the direct to video comedy dross of the 1980s than it is the films we actually saw at the cinema. The nonsense plot involves Afghanistan war veterans, led by Bruce Willis, who personally took out Osama bin Laden, almost disappointingly by accident, but not before he and his men became infected with a nerve gas that causes them to mutate into flesh eating zombies. Only the same gas will abate its effects. Logic is prohibited, so no questions please. The gas escapes and infects the local townspeople, a percentage of whom, many in handy family units or relationships, are immune.

The gas might not turn them but the teeth of the mutants can still tear them, and inhuman strength can separate them limb from limb (one early victim is Stacy Ferguson of the Black Eyed Peas, who sensibly passed on The Fog remake's Stevie Wayne role - for which she would have otherwise been good casting, but accepted this!). The survivors move from sheriff's office, to hospital, to diner, to military base, cannily bringing in all of the principle siege locations for this kind of movie. The stereotypical characters are all there too, the ordinary Joe who is actually a trained killing machine, the go-go dancer and the lady doctor action heroines, tough cops, fatherly cops, brotherly cops, stupid cops, bad scientist, stony cold military types, misogynistic soldiers, and the guy who won't commit to heroic acts.

Rodriguez clearly shares with me my own disappointment when the loveliest girls fall victim in these horror films by not allowing any of them to die once the film reaches a certain point. As everyone else dies, but the leggy beauties continue to makeup part of the surviving contingent. This includes a lady cop who has tied up her deputy's shirt into a bikini top. One of the few male survivors is the objector, who finally takes control of a helicopter. Carting a chopper load of totty to safety he is the geek coward come good as the real tough guys buy it in the neck, representing, I would say, the majority of fans of this kind of fare in their most puerile of dreams.

Throughout the first 70 minutes you are demanding more, occasionally the film coming through, but it shouldn't have you begging. It is a relief when the last half hour proves more consistently funny though the entire exercise is a sham, often spelled out as such. The budget is obviously well outside that of the films it does not pastiche or pay tribute but resolutely skits. The flecks on the film to indicate a worn print look as if they have been added with a simple digital editing package. The UK crowd may have been puzzled by the plot but not necessarily the gimmicks, wise young lot that they are. Of course, this nature of film calls for cameos and veteran cult actors, not to mention the current crop of likely exploitation names.

Never hitherto impressed by Rose McGowan, a dull film career with little provable talent, nor overly attractive, my opinion has taken a major swing shift (possibly with other parts of my anatomy). McGowan not only looks fantastic, her opening go-go dance is sexy and she displays great skill in the latter half of the movie as she acts the cumbersome stumbling around on crutches and a variety of makeshift peg legs. In the chaos of the action it is easy to overlook the work that McGowan is putting into her role. It is demanding, energetic and the choreography is perfectly met. Of course, it is all hats off to the CGI removal effects team, who in a film where so many of the effects have to be noticeably bad, they have to ensure the joins are not visible. A section of the stupid audience probably thinks McGowan had her leg amputated for the role. Of particular note also is the soundtrack by Graeme Revell, which borrows from others but more adroitly recreates those early 1980s' film sounds. Revell was one of those original composers in the mid-1980s but it would be hard to imagine his contemporaries Howard Shore or Chris Young going back to basics, so good on him.

Sometimes the dialogue is worse than it should be, and in a Tarantino cameo, the scene recalls the distasteful fantasies old moon-face exposed us to in the overrated From Dusk Till Dawn. Rumour is that Tarantino was adding dialogue to more than a few scenes and it's easy to interpret the most crass lines as being written by him. Naturally, given the Tarantino involvement, there is a resident sickness to the project and unpleasantly, the team try to garner laughs from actual images of deformation to the face and genitalia, largely caused by syphilis. The unnecessary tastelessness might be put as a tribute to Dr Butcher M.D. (aka: Zombie Holocaust) and its use of footage of bloated corpses. The film never feels quite what it should be, never exactly right, the fake it is, but in its moderate success it becomes a creature unto itself.
Planet Terror

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