When it showed in the US as part of the ill-fated Grindhouse package, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror preceded Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Now it has the unenviable task of following in the wake of that film's resounding bellyflop in UK cinemas.
It's hard to be optimistic about its commercial chances, but the good news is there is a lot to enjoy in this full-blown, exceedingly gory pastiche of Z-level zombie movies. The bad news is that it has stretched to an unsustainable 105 minutes from an already too long 95. In the process, it's lost the best gag from the original US release: after setting up a particularly hot sex scene, Rodriguez cut to a card explaining "Reel Missing". Of course, there are compensations…
Adolescents of all ages will get a kick out of Rose McGowan's voluptuous one-legged go-go dancer, Cherry Darling, stomping around with a submachine gun stuck into her stump. Rodriguez leaves it to our imagination how she pulls the trigger, but it's not manually.
Off-screen, of course, the bodacious Charmed star scored her married - now divorced - director, and the two are hoping to remake Barbarella together, if only they can find someone to foot the bill. Given Rodriguez's track record, he could probably shoot it at his home studio and still have change from a fiver. Unless the ex got the studio I guess.
In any case, Cherry is the lynchpin in an unlikely band of survivors battling it out with rampaging flesh-eating mutants in a Tex-Mex border town. They include her ex-boyfriend, a mechanic and sharpshooter known as El Wray (Freddie Rodriguez); Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), whose homicidal husband (Josh Brolin) has partially paralysed her in retaliation for a lesbian affair (it never rains but it pours); a couple of Venezuelan babysitting twins; the sheriff (Michel Biehn); and barbecue ace JT Hague (Jeff Fahey). Together, they're humanity's last best hope.
Shooting on digital, as is now his norm, Rodriguez has gone to the trouble of defacing his print, painstakingly painting in the scratches, warp and weave you would expect from beaten up second run celluloid. But he hasn't tried to emulate the point and shoot school of direction that characterises most exploitation cinema. The camera work and staging is as flashy as a neon Christmas tree.
Unlike most genuine B-movies, which couldn't afford to muster more than a couple of set-pieces and generally bulked up the running time with leaden exposition and wooden acting, Planet Terror is so jam-packed with lurid mayhem it scarcely leaves any breathing room. When the cast does get a chance to sit down and talk, the patter is always parodic hardboiled pulp.
It's all in good fun for sure. But after 80-some minutes of non-stop carnage, cleavage and cool, the riff begins to ring pretty hollow and you find yourself reaching for the fast-forward button. Which is just when we have to endure a horrible Tarantino cameo as a rapacious GI who loses his balls. Uhgh. That's an image that really could give you nightmares…
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