Planet Terror Review

Planet Terror is well made, often witty and cast to the hilt with a variety of actors from lists A and B. Why then do I feel so unenthusiastic about it? Some of the reasons can be found in John White’s admirable review of the Region 1 disc, which you can read here. To his critique, I would add that everything about the film feels a little bit like those involved were going through the motions. Robert Rodriguez is a capable director but this movie certainly has none of the visual imagination of Sin City, the scintillating style, mixing Peckinpah with Leone, of Desperado, or the relentless ingenuity that Rodriguez demonstrated in From Dusk Till Dawn and the first two Spy Kids movies. It’s more like The Faculty or Once Upon A Time in Mexico, projects where I felt that Rodriguez was going through the motions without ever letting his heart get involved. Throughout Planet Terror, one gets the impression that it was a lot more fun to shoot than it is to watch.

Like Death Proof, the Quentin Tarantino movie which hardly anyone except me liked, Planet Terror originally formed part of the Grindhouse double bill. Whereas Tarantino added a considerable amount of material to his movie for separate international release – the double bill having flopped in the States – Rodriguez has done little except add some padding. What he hasn’t done is film the ‘missing reel’ which appears – or doesn’t appear - after about an hour. Rodriguez has embraced the idea that prints of films at grindhouses were usually poor and Planet Terror is consequently filled with bad splices, dialogue jumps, scratches and other distractions. This should become irksome in itself but, oddly enough, it doesn’t. The problem is that the film doesn’t entirely go with the style.

Symptomatic of this is that the best bit of the film is the opening few minutes, consisting of a trailer for a non-existent exploitation movie called Machete starring the great Danny Trejo. This is so gloriously accurate and funny – “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican” growls the voiceover – that the rest of the movie seems a bit of a let-down. I will long treasure the sight of Cheech Marin in a dog-collar, packing a machine gun and snarling “God forgives…. I don’t!” This is affectionate, rabidly fanboyish stuff and it works in a way that Planet Terror doesn’t. You see, Planet Terror is a just a bit too good, a little too polished to pass muster in a grindhouse and the special effects are so brilliant throughout that they take you out of the scuzziness of the experience.

Still, there’s undoubted fun to be had here, not least from the actors who are quite superbly cast. Rose McGowan makes an ideal plucky heroine, not averse to doing a bit of exotic dancing but coping remarkably well with a missing limb. Freddy Rodriguez is a suitably cynical hero, combining sleaze and charm in roughly equal measures. In smaller roles, Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn are excellent value – the former’s barbecue obsession being a highlight – and Bruce Willis gets points for being very game under the duress of some over the top special effects from Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. As the bad guy, Josh Brolin all but steals the film with a demonstration of why he’s becoming one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood – along with this film, he’s great in In The Valley of Elah and No Country For Old Men.

Indeed, if you forget that this lavish, technically skilled zombie film is meant to be a tribute to the grindhouse experience, then it’s quite a lot of gory fun. I certainly found it more satisfying, if not necessarily more amusing, than some of the genuinely crappy zombie movies of late such as The Zombie Diaries and the ineffable The Stink of Flesh But like my colleague John, I’m left wondering whether viewers might not have just as much fun watching one of the movies which evidently served as inspiration – Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City perhaps, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue or one of John Carpenter’s early movies.

The Disc

Momentum’s DVD of Planet Terror is very similar to the Region 1 disc from Dimension with a pleasing anamorphic transfer and an excellent soundtrack. The picture, framed at 1.78:1, replicates the cinema experience very well with all the ‘damage’ in place. Strong, true colours are the most impressive element, along with a high level of fine detail. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even better, immersing you in the middle of a whirlpool of sound, emphasising the many loud sound effects but also making good work of the quieter and dialogue based moments.

The main extra feature on the first disc is an audio commentary from Robert Rodriguez which is excellent; chatty and enthusiastic. It’s a bit relentlessly ebullient but one can’t fault Rodriguez’s love of movies. We also get an audience reaction track which is revealing if only for demonstrating what sort of things American audiences find worth applauding – Bruce Willis for example. Exclusive to the UK disc is a 23 minute panel discussion from Comic Con 2007 which features Rodriguez, Tarantino and some cast members. This is mildly interesting but it soon becomes clear that Tarantino hasn’t shot his film yet and his comments are consequently of considerably less value than those of his colleague. The audience questions aren’t particularly interesting either, coming mostly from would-be filmmakers who have been inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s writing about how to make a movie on the cheap. Finally on the first disc are two trailers and a poster gallery.

The second disc is identical to that on the US Region 1 release; a collection of featurettes which are distinguished only by the amount of gushing about how “cool” everything is. The Ten Minute Film School sounds promising but is simply a very familiar study of how the CGI was achieved. The introductions to the “Badass Babes” and “The Guys” are EPK slop and only a study of the stunts has some meat to it.

Planet Terror is acceptable Friday night entertainment but it’s utterly insubstantial, even on an exploitation level, and might best be enjoyed with suitably low expectations.

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