15 Years Ago: The Failure of ‘Grindhouse’ Heralds a New Era
On April 6, 2007, two darlings of the '90s new wave cinema movement, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, released a double feature called Grindhouse, comprised of two films that were an homage to their beloved exploitation films of the '70s.
Although critics responded enthusiastically, audiences did not. The film flopped, proving that a new era of movies was dawning in the U.S.
The idea for the project came from Rodriguez, who was inspired by the double and triple features that Tarantino would show to friends in the theater located in his home in the Hollywood Hills. As Rodriguez explained to Collider in 2007, these screenings often consisted of the '70s fare Tarantino grew up with, and because the films were old and not often seen, Tarantino's prints were "sometimes all screwed up," which added "a really great texture to it and a vitality to it."
Rodriguez suggested that the two filmmakers make a double feature, and use both in-camera and post-production techniques to make the movies feel like they had been made in the '70s. Tarantino immediately agreed and decided that they should call it Grindhouse. The resulting two films, Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof, serve as love letters to an era when low-budget filmmakers were releasing reams of cheap, bloody and titillating material.
Watch the Trailer for 'Planet Terror'
Planet Terror is a zombie flick. It tells a story centered on a go-go dancer named Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) who, along with her boyfriend "El Wray" (Freddy Rodriguez), gets caught up in a zombie apocalypse in Texas, near the Mexican border. From this traditional beginning, Rodriquez creates an over-the-top and referential splatter-fest. There's a crazy doctor (Josh Brolin), an insane army lieutenant (Bruce Willis), a persecuted scientist, a hard-ass Texas sheriff, plus tons of flesh-rending zombie sequences.
The film's most notorious move (featured in its poster art) is to have Cherry's leg get torn off by zombies and replaced - first by a table leg and then by a machine gun. There's also a gag in which the movie stops and a title card appears to tell the audience that a reel is missing; after this, the movie starts up again, 15 minutes further into the plot. It's all tightly directed and pulled off with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek joy, never coming off as condescending to its material, while having a lot of fun with its more bonkers moments.
Watch the Trailer for 'Death Proof'
Death Proof is Tarantino's attempt to transport the moves of a slasher flick onto the framework of a car chase movie. As he told Rolling Stone in 2007, the traditional slasher genre was too "rigid" for his plans, so he decided to "take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do." The film is about a stunt man (Kurt Russell) who has a "death-proofed" car, which he can crash at high speeds without injuring himself, as long as he's in the driver's seat. The catch? Anyone who's in the car with him will be killed.
Using this car, he kills women in rural Texas. But when he meets a group of female friends led by stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself), he's finally met his match. After he terrorizes them, they turn the tables, first knocking his car off the road, and then dragging him out of it and beating him to death. It's a classic Tarantino film, filled with catchy dialogue, lots of discussion of pop culture and spasms of graphic violence.
When the films opened in 2007, there were also several fake trailers shown with them, including contributions by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. (Two of these trailers, Rodriquez's Machete and Jason Eisener's Hobo With a Shotgun, went on to be made as actual feature films.) The whole screening ran more than three hours, serving as an immersive time machine back to a decade much-beloved by certain strains of film buffs.
Watch the Trailer for 'Machete'
Unfortunately, audiences at large didn't respond to the extravaganza. Despite its rave reviews and the fact that it opened in more than 2,600 theaters, Grindhouse managed to gross only $25 million against a budget of $67 million and was beat out on its opening weekend by the Will Farrell spoof Blades of Glory and the Disney animated picture Meet the Robinsons.
Why? Some critics at the time blamed the content; others claimed that modern audiences weren't interested in sitting in a theater for three hours. In retrospect, the truth seems to have more to do with larger changes in the industry and culture.
Tarantino and Rodriguez are movie fanatics. Rodriguez started making films with his family's VHS camera when he was still in middle school in Texas, and Tarantino spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles skipping school to sit in theaters all day. And both filmmakers came of age in the '90s, a decade in which the indie-film scene was booming and there was a real reverence in Hollywood for the pioneers of the previous surge of independent cinema, which had taken place in the early '70s.
Watch the Trailer for 'Hobo With a Shotgun'
But by the early '00s, things had started to change. The industry was moving away from a reverence for history and cinematic technique and toward digital-effects driven blockbusters. At the same time, audiences were becoming drawn to films based on comics and young-adult books. The first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (released in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), arrived in 2001. In 2005, Batman Begins kicked off the superhero cycle that was soon to dominate the movie world, and in 2007 Transformers had cemented the move to huge-budget, larger-than-life action flicks.
Against that backdrop, it's clear now that Grindhouse was out of step with the times, a film purist's roadshow made in a moment when cinema was transforming itself into a spectacle.
The quality and lasting allure of the Grindhouse material is shown by how rapidly Death Proof and Planet Terror went on to reach the status of cult classics, as did the spinoff films Machete and Hobo With a Shotgun. Many cineastes love them and regard Planet Terror in particular as one of Rodriquez's strongest works. But mainstream audiences didn't connect, because the kind of moviegoer Grindhouse envisioned was already an endangered species in 2007.