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Planet Terror

Entry updated 9 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2007). Dimension Films presents a Rodriguez International Pictures release in association with Troublemaker Studios and The Weinstein Company. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (uncredited). Written by Robert Rodriguez. Cast includes Naveen Andrews, Electra Avellan, Elise Avellan, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey, Rose McGowan, Michael Parks, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton and Bruce Willis. 103 minutes. Colour.

First conceived by writer-director Rodriguez during the shooting of The Faculty (1998), Planet Terror was paired on release with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007) as a double-barrelled homage to the "Grindhouse" exploitation double features of the 1960s and 1970s. The films included previews of one another and of Rodriguez's then-unfinished film Machete – this was later completed and released in 2010 – and each displayed a pre-digitized aesthetic, here hyper-realized as film stock artificially distressed in post-production, disjointed jump-cuts, a blaring soundtrack, and a host of tropes inherited from Monster Movies, such as Zombies, Mad Scientists and murderous bikini-clad women (see Women in SF).

The term "Grindhouse" occurs first in Cinema in Lady of Burlesque (1943), where it is used to refer to a "bump and grind" burlesque theatre on 42nd Street in New York. Here the artiste-not-stripper is Cherry Darling (McGowan) – "I'm a go-go dancer, there's a difference" – whose career move into stand-up is stymied when local Zombies tear off her leg. Thousands of similarly pustule-faced creatures swarm rural Texas when an experimental bio-Weapon is released during a breakdown in negotiations at a nearby US military base between crazed special forces renegade Lieutenant Muldoon (Willis) and even-more-crazed chemical Scientist "Abby" (Andrews). Darling's sometime beau "El Wray" (Freddy Rodriguez) pauses only to replace her missing leg with a modified M4 Carbine and M203 grenade launcher before gathering rag-tag resistance to the zombie horde: barbecue chef J T Hague (Fahey), "Crazy Babysitter Twins" Elame and Elisa (Electra and Elise Avellan), bisexual, double-jointed Doctor Dakota Block (Shelton) and, not least, her disapproving father, Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Parks), who, after shooting hypodermically-indiscriminate son-in-law Doctor William Block (Brolin), is heard to remark: "Never did like that son of a bitch – about as useless as a pecker on a pope."

Rodriguez – he also supervised the music and the special effects and acted as cinematographer – began preproduction with an incomplete script and workshopped the rest with the actors during auditions: a certain, free-wheeling shapelessness is felt in the final product, almost as if Planet Terror does not quite believe in the world it depicts (see the second tenet of Fantastika – namely, that the text should be able to be read as literally happening – for the distancing effect this might have on viewers). Many members of the cast had previously worked with Rodriguez – the Earl McGraw character was imported wholesale from previous Rodriguez-Tarantino collaboration From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – and it is clear that everyone is enjoying themselves, reminding one somewhat of the remark critic Germaine Greer made of the English Theatre: that those on stage often seem to be having more fun than those watching. Where the film excels is in its conjunction of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and in-camera special effects. Cherry Darling's machine-gun leg was not the only visual effect carefully animated before the shoot, represented on-set via prosthetics of wood and latex and then embroidered digitally after the fact. Planet Terror is about the films directors Rodriguez and Tarantino watched while growing up; Rodriguez named the film after the late-night horror show Project Terror which aired in Texas on KENS-TV during the 1970s and early 1980s. There is a strong love of Pulp throughout, and there are frequent references to the best ever movie made in this vein, John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). The virus in this case did not spread to the box office, where Planet Terror took a little over $10 million. [MD]


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