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Quarantino 7—Hot cars and cool chicks

Vocab time! Exploitation films —a sub-genre of movies, popularized in the late '60s to '70s, that generally aimed to profit off current cultural trends, niche genres, or sensationalist content such as sex, violence, and gore.
A Dodge Charger is one of the cars featured in Death Proof. Photo submitted

Vocab time!

Exploitation films—a sub-genre of movies, popularized in the late '60s to '70s, that generally aimed to profit off current cultural trends, niche genres, or sensationalist content such as sex, violence, and gore.

Grindhouse—Once home to the "bump and grind' burlesque crowd, these run-down theatres transitioned to showing B-movies and exploitation flicks, often two or three films for the price of one. In the early '80s, the grindhouse theatre was rendered almost obsolete with the rise in popularity of home video.

And these are the kinds of films a movie geek like Quentin Tarantino grew up with, both in the repertory cinemas of Los Angeles and from the racks of Video Archives, the shop he worked in for five years. Generally, the grindhouse or exploitation flicks had few redeeming qualities for the average cinemagoer but they had niche appeal: the plot and character arc of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! are utterly lacklustre, but does that matter when you have busty, kung-fu go-go dancers racing cars in the desert? Or a shard of wood penetrating a human eyeball in extreme close-up like in Lucio Fulci's Zombie?

Tarantino had all this in mind when he and his buddy Robert Rodriguez (the master-of-all-trades indie filmmaker prodigy who made his first feature, El Mariachi, with $16,000 he'd made as a medical research guinea pig, and then discovered Salma Hayek) decided to make Grindhouse, a throwback B-movie double feature for 2007 audiences. Quentin's contribution was Death Proof, unanimously accepted (even by him) as the shittiest Tarantino movie ever made and our subject for week seven of Quarantino.

Death Proof stars Kurt Russell as a washed-up stuntman with souped-up, reinforced "death proof" stunt cars (a '71 Chevy Nova for the first half, then a '69 Dodge Charger) that he uses to kill random women in staged car accidents. And that's about it, until Mike (Kurt) messes with the wrong chicks, a gang of badasses led by stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing herself, who just wants to haul ass in a white Dodge Challenger (like the one in Vanishing Point) and do some crazy shit.

The backstory is slim: Tarantino has said he wanted to make a slasher flick where the killer uses a car instead of a knife, and he was reportedly super into the modifications stunt drivers made to their cars at the time. (A decade later, it would come out that Uma Thurman crashed a car and was injured during the filming of Kill Bill: Volume 2, so it's possible there's some subconscious fear/guilt exorcism shit going on here too—Zoe Bell was Thurman's double in Kill Bill.)

So here's Quentin, coming off a huge, long, expensive double-movie project based heavily on genre and exploitation cinema, and it seems he wanted to keep that vibe going, but head back to the low-fi, DIY roots (Death Proof is also the only time Tarantino has shot a film himself as the director of photography).

The result is a very talkative, loose, and gruesome flick about hot chicks hanging out and shooting the shit, with a poetry-spouting killer in their midst and some of the best non-CGI car-chase action to hit screens in decades (really strong work here that will likely be lost on younger audiences).

Add in an iconic B-movie star with Russell, the obligatory foot-fetish shots, a catchy obscure song ("Hold Tight!"), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a cheerleader outfit ... what more do you really need?

It's not a great movie (Winstead's character is literally abandoned by the film), but true grindhouse flicks rarely are. This one also marks a bit of a turning point for Quentin, a punctuation on his trash-cinema roots before he shifts into high gear and drives hard into the third act of his career—a mashup of classic cinema, revisionist history, and lots more revenge. Dude was just warming up thus far.

Alternatively, if you want to stretch your brain muscles beyond cheap thrills, check out the VICE news show on Crave/Showtime. They've got mini docs on a plethora of lesser-covered global stories like the rise of Hindu-on-Muslim violence in India, the world's worst stretch of drug border in Paraguay, or a check-in with COVID deaths in Italy.

Stay safe as things open up!