Movie Review: Planet Terror

Planet Terror2007. Starring Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.

I bet that, for every old fart writing a post about the disappearing drive-in movie theater, there are a dozen young farts saying, “so what?” I know it’s easier for today’s teenagers to do everything — see horrific movies, get away from the parents, drink like a fish, jump into that carnal rodeo called puberty, to feel young and invincible and immortal. And I also know that old farts like me are much luckier than our more-privileged progeny, because ours was a hard-earned, rarely achieved state of stimulation plus satiation.

The drive-in in Hayward was ground zero to so many indiscretions. I can’t believe we were ever allowed to take the family car there. My buddies and I would stop at the Midway Store, known for its trusting clerks, to load up on beer and half pints, which were consumed in the 12 short miles to our destination. Unlike traditional depiction of the drive-in experience, we never cheated by sneaking others in through our trunks — we paid full price, sitting upright and sober in our seats, while holding back the urge to giggle and puke. Once we’d found a spot, we wandered from car to car, looking for familiar faces and hallway crushes, finally mustering the nerve to talk to girls who couldn’t stand us in the weekday light.

Throughout the first feature, we’d flirt with the girls and commiserate with each other, before giving up and hitting the concession stand at the first sign of sobriety. By the second feature, there’d be rapt interest in the movie, at least until half of those in the car fell asleep. I saw some amazing and terrible movies in those days. I can remember the unbelievable opening to David Cronenberg’s They Came From Within, as a stranger chased a woman through a house and graphically eviscerated her. I remember laughing at the gigantic worms crawling from the sink and the bloodthirsty mice in Food of the Gods — almost as ridiculous as the gigantic and bloodthirsty rabbits in Night of the Lepus. There was a scene from The Child — a forgettable demonic-child flick, in which a grandmother is pulled beneath the stairs by mutated creatures — that still bothers me.

I also remember attempting to put an arm around the girl of my dreams in the backseat of her brother’s car, and taking two full features to do so, then feeling it was time to kiss her just as the lights came up, and her brother yelling, “Get out!”  I remember another night sitting alone in the car, knowing that the girl I liked was out there, somewhere, with someone else’s arm around her. But the most-familiar feeling was the lights coming on and everyone waking up, with the windows fogged up from our breath and the cold air outside, remembering to put the speaker back on the stand, and inch toward the single exit.

I wish we’d had Planet Terror to watch back then. The problem with most of the “grindhouse” features back then was the long, dull sections between action. This movie would have kept us awake all evening, and coming back all week. The “Prevues of Coming Attractions” transition at the start of the DVD takes me right back to that dimly lit lot of broken dreams.

There really weren’t films like this back then — zombie movies about biological warfare, featuring strippers and armloads of guns. But the films looked a lot like this one — with streaks and scratches, and edits and burnt frames. My favorite section in Planet Terror has to be the sex scene that has deteriorated from over-viewing and leads to a “Missing Reel” frame. How everyone in the movie ends up in the same place and alive in the eventual following scene is a mystery whose answers must’ve played out in that missing reel.

Freddy Rodriguez plays Wray, a mysterious leather-jacketed tow-truck driver who runs into ex-flame Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), who has just lost her job as a go-go dancer and is about to lose her leg to zombies. Things start to go to shit in the local hospital, where nurse Dakota (Marley Shelton) is trying to leave abusive Dr. Block (Josh Brolin), who gets a bit too close to the infectious, oozing-sore emergency room patients. Soon they are on the run, as is everyone in a zombie movie, including grindhouse regulars Michael Biehn (The Terminator), Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower Man), Carlos Gallardo (El Mariachi) and Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, and gore-makeup artist to the stars). Zombies explode and great lines are uttered. I guess there’s a subplot involving Bruce Willis and a government conspiracy, but I may have fallen asleep during that part.

Needless to say, you don’t watch Planet Terror and learn about yourself and the human experience. Still, I love Freddy Rodriguez as the hero — a foot shorter than everyone else but still coolest the guy on screen. The scene where kohl-eyed Marley Shelton, her hands paralyzed from anesthetic needles, trying to open her car door might be the most cringe-inducing scene in the whole cringe-inducing movie. And Rose McGowan makes the most from a role that equips her one-legged stripper with a machine gun. If you’re looking for more meaning from a grindhouse movie, you’ve pulled into the wrong drive-in, pal.

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