It was a noble experiment. After the success of their previous genre homages like 'From Dusk Till Dawn' and 'Kill Bill', best buds and B-movie enthusiasts Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino decided to team-up for a two-punch double-bill of '70s-style exploitation fun. The 2007 theatrical release of 'Grindhouse' gave audiences a full evening of campy chills and thrills, complete with two 90-minute features -- 'Planet Terror' by Rodriguez and 'Death Proof' by Tarantino -- and a smattering of spoof trailers in between. For those who got what the directors were going for, the experience was a total kitschy blast. Unfortunately, the average teen theatergoing audience had no idea what a grindhouse was and little concept of why they should sit through a three-hour tribute to bad moviemaking. Everyone else made the mistake of waiting for DVD. As a result, 'Grindhouse' flopped.
Blaming the double-feature format, producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein decided to dismantle 'Grindhouse' entirely. For the overseas theatrical run, 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof' were released separately, each padded with some extra footage to expand their running lengths. In the process, almost all of the fake trailers were jettisoned. Publicly, Rodriguez and Tarantino tried to be diplomatic about the deconstruction, claiming that 'Planet Terror', 'Death Proof', and 'Grindhouse' should be thought of as three distinct experiences, each with their own merits. The directors no doubt assumed that viewers would be able to pick their favorite viewing method on home video. Sadly, that didn't exactly work out either. To date, the Weinsteins have kept the movies split apart. 'Grindhouse' remains a memory shared only by the few that saw it during its original run.
For his opening volume, Rodriguez made 'Planet Terror' into an old-fashioned monster movie cheesefest. One dark and foggy night, some rogue military commandoes accidentally release a biological agent into the air that starts turning almost the entire population of Austin, TX into psycho mutant freakazoids that crave human flesh. Immune from the contagion are Cherry (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who has had one of her legs grawed off by the sickos, and her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a tow truck driver with a mysterious past and an affinity for firearms and edged weapons. Together they must lead a small band of other survivors in a last-ditch effort to fight off both the monsters and the lunatic soldiers.
In spirit, 'Planet Terror' is a B-movie all the way. The picture is filled with gratuitous sex and violence, juicy gore, ridiculous stunts, and plenty of babes in skimpy outfits carrying machine guns. To give it that proper grindhouse ambience, every frame in the movie is awash in simulated scratches, grit, and other film damage, like the print had been scraped off the projection room floor. There's even jokey section where the picture cuts out and a placard informs us that a reel is missing before jumping back to the story with a great deal of plot skipped over.
On the other hand, 'Planet Terror' isn't a low-budget grindhouse production at all. It's more like Rodriguez's feverish interpretation of what he always wanted a grindhouse movie to be. For all its bad dialogue and hammy overacting, the film has very modern, professional visual effects, huge action sequences, and high-concept ideas (Cherry eventually replaces her missing leg with a machine gun and rocket launcher) that could never have been pulled off so convincingly in a real grindhouse movie.
Of the two 'Grindhouse' co-features, 'Planet Terror' is the most unapologetically silly and fun. Most viewers preferred it over Tarantino's entry. Personally, I like 'Death Proof' more. Regardless, neither feature is as strong individually as they were together. This is truly a case where the parts don't add up to the sum of the whole. Lacking a compelling story or characters, 'Planet Terror' is hurt the most by the separation. On its own, it's basically just a dumb B-movie scratched up to look old. The extra 10 minutes added to the Extended and Unrated cut don't amount to anything significant (that "missing reel" is still missing). Quite frankly, as far as B-movie horror homages go, I think that 'Slither' pulled off the concept a whole lot more effectively.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Planet Terror' has been available on DVD since October of 2007. Due to fall-out from the HD format war and The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment's ambivalence towards releasing its movies in High Definition, the title has only now made the transition to Blu-ray. Going by the packaging, the studio has officially given this release the unwieldy title of 'Grindhouse Presents Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror – Extended and Unrated 2-Disc Special Edition'.
The Blu-ray contains only the 105-minute extended cut of 'Planet Terror', which runs 10 minutes longer than the version that played as part of 'Grindhouse'. Rodriguez's trailer for the fake Mexploitation thriller 'Machete' is attached at the head of the film. Quentin Tarantino's co-feature 'Death Proof' is available separately.
How do you rate the picture quality of a movie that's been intentionally designed to look like a ratty theatrical print? Although actually shot on digital video, 'Planet Terror' is smothered from start to finish in simulated film scratches, splices, dirt, grain, warping, and even color bleed. The colors themselves are usually either oversaturated or completely faded depending on the scene, with a few instances where the image goes pink like the print is turning to vinegar. This is all obviously deliberate and not the sort of thing you can criticize the disc for.
For what it is, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is at least a modest step up from the DVD edition. In addition to everything else, the picture also looks like it's been softened a bit, so the overall sense of detail is only fair. I'm sure many viewers will argue that Blu-ray isn't necessary for this particular movie, but in comparison to the DVD there is certainly an improvement. Those nicks and scratches are crisper than ever in High Definition. While the DVD looks like a bad 16mm dub print, the Blu-ray at least looks like a battered 35mm print. Realistically, the movie can be enjoyed either way.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray are sourced from the same digital master, which has been opened up to screen-filling 16:9 from the original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio that it played at as part of 'Grindhouse'. This was done at the instruction of Robert Rodriguez, who previously requested the same for home video editions of 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico'. The photography is composed loosely enough that it looks fine either way. I doubt that anyone who didn't know about the change beforehand would ever think that anything is wrong with the Blu-ray's framing.
In the supplement package on the disc is a "scratch-free" version of the movie (more on this below) with a separate 1080p/VC-1 encode. The digital video origins are much clearer in this version, which is sparkling clean for the most part and has perfect, vivid colors. Detail is also decidedly sharper. From an eye candy standpoint, the scratch-free version has merit, but in terms of artistic intent and entertainment value, the theatrical version is still preferred.
Other than a few pops and crackles for effect, the lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack has a modern, energetic 5.1 sound mix that belies the movie's supposed low-budget grindhouse origins. As far as audio goes, this is an A-list action movie all the way.
Sound effects are sharp and clean. The surround channels get plenty of action, and low frequency activity is loud and rumbly throughout. Fidelity is fine, though the track rarely exhibits the sort of crispness and clarity of the best high-resolution soundtracks. To be honest, I didn't hear all that much difference between the lossless TrueHD and the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 option on the same disc. Still, for what it's meant to be, it gets the job done nicely.
All of the bonus features from the DVD have carried over to the Blu-ray.
The Weinstein Company is really doing 'Grindhouse' fans a disservice by keeping 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof' separated. Neither movie is as strong on its own as the original 'Grindhouse' experience. The closest we can get now is to watch the two Blu-rays back-to-back, but even that's not quite the same. For what it is, 'Planet Terror' is a fairly fun B-movie homage, and the Blu-ray has a faithful transfer of the intended gritty appearance. The disc comes recommended. Or rather, half-recommended, since you pretty much need to buy 'Death Proof' to complete the package.