Nuclear Waste
By Noel Vera

Planet Terror
Dir: Robert Rodriguez (2007)

Robert Rodriguez's latest feature "Planet Terror" (2007) is his attempt to re-create the feel of his (and Tarantino's) much-beloved grindhouse days, when moldering movie theaters with ripped seat cushions and unsavory smells might show a double feature of, oh, say, Gerry de Leon's "Women in Cages" (1971) with Jesus Franco's "Vampyros Lesbos" (same year) (I'm not sure they ever actually did such a pairing, but it makes a nice progression).

In American theaters, Rodriguez's movie was paired with Quentin Tarantino's own homage to exploitation films ("Death Proof")), stitched together with a slew of fake trailers (Edgar Wright's "Don't," Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving," and--funniest of all, at least on paper--Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS") and released as a three-hour extravaganza, the closest you'll ever get to the sights, sounds, feel and smells of a second-run theater in the glory days of the '70s and '80s.

The movie didn't do well in the United States; apparently audiences liked not smelling urine in the aisles, liked knowing that the stickiness in the seats is caramel and not something altogether less savory; I also suspect that the audiences preferred their movies to clock in at a shorter running time (the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the recent "Transformers" were pushing it, but didn't push too hard).

Many didn't get the joke--people were leaving after the end of "Planet Terror" until theater managers had staff posted at the exits reminding people that a second feature was still to come. Splitting the film into two discrete features for Asian--and Filipino--audiences is probably a smart move; we're not familiar with the double-feature concept, and I doubt if we'd sit still for anything longer than two and a half hours.

Ergo--"Planet Terror," with maybe one or the other of the trailers included, and without Tarantino's contribution to the project. It's not a bad picture per se, or at least not unintentionally so--a silly concoction Rodriguez has whipped up, about the military allowing noxious gases to escape and create zombies, and various citizens banding together to survive, much of its details borrowed from George Romero and Lucio Fulci, among others.

Easily the best idea in the movie is having Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling ("Sounds like a stripper name" "no, it sounds like a go-go dancer name; there's a difference") lose one leg to one of the undead, to be eventually replaced by her former boyfriend El Wray (a fairly intense Freddy Rodriguez) with an M-16 assault rifle / M203 grenade launcher (one wonders at the use of a gun barrel--which anyone with any sense will tell you to keep raised and away from dirt, to prevent clogging--for a leg (though beyond that one wonders about the wisdom of wondering about such questions in a flick full of bubbling zombies)).

I like the idea of a beautiful woman (for a thick, unsubtle layer of added irony, a dancer with dreams of being a stand-up comedian) hobbling around with a kickass weapon for a limb; don't think much of McGowan as an actress, so any appendage taken away or added can only improve her performance (not that she's asked to perform here, not in the thespic sense, anyway).

I like the hot-pizza quality of the zombies, particularly the body parts melting away like gummi bears under a blow-dryer--one of Rodriguez's finest moments is talking (or he could have volunteered, for all I know) fellow director and good friend Tarantino into appearing onscreen as a rapist soldier whose ability to rape literally drips away in gooey strings.

Much like Tarantino's enthusiasm, the picture's pacing ultimately droops, then sags, then keels over for want of anything more interesting to show us ("Zombies; chick with assault-rifle leg; dripping testicles; and then?"). Rodriguez sets up an expectation for more and more outrageousness that he just can't quite keep up. It's a problem with which Rodriguez has struggled for most of his career--his faux-epic "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," is all consistently engaging set-up, stylish climax, and precious little story development in between two fairly impressive bookends.

Here it takes a tedious amount of time (despite an intentionally induced 'missing reel') before El Wray finally jams the rifle onto Cherry's stump, and while that does remain a memorable moment, Rodriguez fails to follow it up with anything equally satisfying--mostly survivors beating a Howard Hawks-style retreat to an escape helicopter, soldier zombies in hot pursuit.

Rodriguez--and Tarantino, acting and co-producing beside him--are out for a lark; unlike Romero's recent "Land of the Dead" (2005), or Joe Dante in his brilliant short "Homecoming" (released the same year), Rodriguez is not using the zombies for anything more than as convenient plot device. Well, there are brief references to WMD-type chemical agents, military cover-ups, and Guantanamo-style intimidation of prisoners, but the tone of the scenes--the attempt to play up the luridness--suggests more opportunistic headline-grabbing than any earnest attempt to actually explore contemporary issues.

Rodriguez is I think a more skilled filmmaker than Tarantino (who's essentially a clever scriptwriter with a voluminous catalogue of movies from which to draw on for visual technique) with serious storytelling problems (alongside with an inability to develop his stories, he has a serious problem ending them).

Maybe my biggest problem with this whole exercise is the sheer superfluity of it all, at least to Filipino audiences. We have our own grindhouses in Manila, where insanely overcrowded theaters are the norm, cats meow from the darker corners, steamed buns filled with unidentifiable meat (why do you think there are cats in the theaters?) and balut (boiled duck eggs with a recognizably developed fetus) are sometimes served at the refreshment counter, and I'd once seen a toddler urinate straight into a plastic vending cup he'd been drinking Pepsi out of (I couldn't approve of his hygiene training, but I did admire his marksmanship).

As for the movies themselves--overripe women emerging from giant eggplants (with gallons of tomato sauce dripping from both); green muscled men with giant pythons sprouting out of their shoulder blades; mermaids, Wonder Woman look-alikes, obese giant men, James Bond-like midgets, bald vampires in punk shades. Filipino pulp films and the nightmarish Manila theaters that screen them are perfectly capable of providing their own inimitable experiences, thank you very much (I haven't even mentioned provincial theaters); Rodriguez's movie can only be a redundancy inspired by an irrelevancy.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 07/20/07.
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August 3, 2007