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 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 the running length. In the process, almost all of the fake trailers were jettisoned. Publicly, Rodriguez and Tarantino tried to be diplomatic about the deconstruction. They claimed that 'Planet Terror', 'Death Proof', and 'Grindhouse' should be thought of as three distinct experiences, each with its 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. Until now, the Weinsteins kept the movies split apart. For the last three years, 'Grindhouse' remained a memory shared only by the few who saw it during its original run.
To summarize: 'Planet Terror', the opening volume by Robert Rodriguez, is an old-fashioned monster movie cheesefest. When rogue military commandoes release a biological agent into the air, almost the entire populace of Austin, TX turns into psycho mutant freakazoids that crave human flesh. Only a small band of survivors led by go-go dancer Cherry (Rose McGowan) and tow truck driver Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) are immune from the contagion. The picture is unapologetically silly and fun. It's filled with gratuitous sex and violence, juicy gore, ridiculous stunts, and plenty of babes in skimpy outfits carrying machine guns.
While 'Planet Terror' is a goofy B-movie that's action-packed from start to finish and never takes itself seriously, co-feature 'Death Proof' is… well, it's a Quentin Tarantino film. On a languid, hot summer night in Austin, a trio of young babes trawl bars, get drunk and smoke weed, all the while endlessly talking about the sort of things that Quentin Tarantino characters usually talk about – pop culture touchstones that are both meaningless and deeply imbued with personal relevance at the same time. Eventually, they meet Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a middle-aged hanger-on who's both strangely charismatic and kind of creepy. They may not give him a lot of thought when they say their goodbyes and head out for the next leg of the night, but Stuntman Mike has his own plans for their evening. And when he's done with them, he'll move on to stalking an entirely new group of girls.
Like most Tarantino films, 'Death Proof' is extremely talky, complexly structured, and takes its time building up steam. A lot of time. It's also very tonally different than 'Planet Terror'. Conceptually, the two features were actually well-matched in 'Grindhouse'. B-movie double-features of the 1970s often paired together such radically different films that had nothing to do with one another. But there's no denying that 'Planet Terror' sets a certain expectation that 'Death Proof' more or less deflates. When they played together as part of the double-feature, the majority of viewers preferred the Rodriguez half. Many of them leveled some downright scathing criticism on Tarantino's entry. I wonder how they would have reacted had the order been re-arranged? On the other hand, 'Death Proof' builds to an incredibly rousing finale that sends the double-bill out on a high note, and seems better positioned at the back-end for that reason.
Although I realize that I'm in the minority with this opinion, I prefer 'Death Proof' by wide margin. Here's the thing about it: On a first viewing, the movie can feel incredibly frustrating in the way the story is laid out. However, at the conclusion (and especially clear in repeated viewings), the structure is kind of brilliant in its way. Tarantino spends a considerable amount of time setting viewer expectations for what type of movie they're watching, only to pull the rug out halfway through. Then he sets it up again seemingly to do the exact same thing, but turns the tables in the last act with a lengthy and, to be blunt about it, fucking amazing car chase – staged entirely without CGI or other visual effects bullshit, just real cars and real stuntpeople moving very fast – that blows the roof off the whole movie and is quite simply the most purely enjoyable thing that Quentin Tarantino has ever directed.
Regardless, neither movie is as strong individually as they are together. This is truly a case where the parts don't add up to the sum of the whole. Not only does the full 'Grindhouse' feature play the two pictures back-to-back, the intermission between them is littered with hilarious fake movie trailers: 'Werewolf Women of the SS' by Rob Zombie, 'Don't' by Edgar Wright, and 'Thanksgiving' by Eli Roth. (Rodriguez's 'Machete' trailer also plays at the head of the film. Technically, that has always been part of 'Planet Terror', even in its separate release.) This is a full evening of campy chills and thrills, and it's about time that it's been restored to the intended presentation.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
After countless delays, 'Grindhouse' has finally been reconstituted to its original theatrical form for this 2-Disc Collector's Edition from Vivendi Entertainment (acting as the current distributor for The Weinstein Company). At the time of this writing, this version of 'Grindhouse' is exclusive to Blu-ray. There is no comparable DVD edition in North America. [Correction: It turns out that a DVD has been released in Canada, but not the United States.]
The 2-disc set comes in a standard keepcase with a slipcover, which has a fold-out panel. Within that panel are faux-vintage poster designs. More adorn both the outside and inside of the keepcase art, and a printed insert booklet. It's a handsome package designed to emulate the 6-disc DVD box released in Region 2 Japan a few years ago.
Be warned that the back of the slipcover has a translucent "Made in Mexico" sticker. Do not attempt to remove this sticker, or you will only wind up peeling off portions of the slipcover artwork with it. This has been reported by many buyers, and I've had that experience myself. It's safer to just leave the sticker where it is.
The entire 'Grindhouse' double-feature is on Disc 1. The disc is slow to load and has some confusing menu designs that aren't always clear which selection is being highlighted. However, the disc has no trailers forced at the start of the menu. Disc 2 is entirely devoted to bonus features.
The Blu-ray set contains only the theatrical version of 'Grindhouse'. It does not contain the longer Extended versions of 'Planet Terror' or 'Death Proof' that were previously issued on Blu-ray. It also lacks the "Scratch-Free" version of 'Planet Terror' included as a bonus feature on the prior Blu-ray. While the changes to 'Planet Terror' are fairly negligible, 'Death Proof' gained a significant amount of new footage in the Extended cut that benefited it as a standalone feature. Among the changes were a lapdance scene discussed in the dialogue but not seen here, and a lot more screen time for Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character. Fans and collectors will want to keep all three Blu-ray releases for their own individual merits.
How do you rate the picture quality of a movie that's been intentionally designed to look like a ratty theatrical print? To give them the proper grindhouse ambience, both features in the double-bill (as well as all the trailers before and between) are awash in simulated film scratches, splices, dirt, grain, warping, and even color bleed. This is all obviously deliberate and not the sort of thing you can criticize the disc for. I'm sure many viewers will argue that Blu-ray isn't necessary for this particular movie, but in comparison to the DVDs, there's certainly improvement on both features. Those nicks and scratches are crisper than ever in high definition, and there's a fairly good amount of detail beneath them. While the DVDs look like bad 16mm dub prints, the Blu-ray at least looks like a battered 35mm print.
Despite the film damage effects, 'Planet Terror' was actually shot on digital video. Rodriguez really went overboard and smothered every single frame to look like it'd been scraped off the projection room floor. On the other hand, Tarantino was a bit more restrained. The scratches and jump cuts in 'Death Proof' (which was shot on 35mm film) are more organic and natural. The film damage is often sporadic. In fact, the entire last act of the movie is virtually spotless. The big car chase makes for some splendid high-def imagery.
As a double-bill, 'Grindhouse' was projected in theaters at a constant aspect ratio of 2.35:1. For the previous standalone DVD and Blu-ray, Rodriguez altered the framing of 'Planet Terror' to full-frame 16:9. The original 2.35:1 has been restored for this new Blu-ray. The wider framing helps to emphasize the homages to early John Carpenter movies. In comparison to the full-frame edition, the 2.35:1 version loses some picture off the top and bottom of the image while gaining a small amount on the sides. The size and position of credit text has also been adjusted. 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 either Blu-ray's framing.
(The following images were taken from the Japanese DVD release, and are not intended to represent any aspect of Blu-ray picture quality other than the framing differences in the two versions of the movie.)
'Death Proof' has always been 2.35:1, and remains at that ratio here.
I didn't have the opportunity to extensively compare this new 'Grindhouse' disc to the previous standalone Blu-rays. If there's any difference in picture quality, it doesn't seem significant. Considering that all versions are deliberately designed to look like crappy theatrical prints, I honestly don't feel that pixel-by-pixel comparisons are worth obsessing over. No digital artifacts (such as Edge Enhancement, Digital Noise Reduction, or pixelation issues) are apparent in the 1080p/VC-1 transfer. Anything else falls into the category of being consistent with the artistic intent of the filmmakers. I had a great time watching 'Grindhouse' on my Constant Image Height projection screen. The experience felt just like watching a beat-up film print.
Unfortunately, the audio portion of the disc is where Vivendi stumbles. The studio has neglected to encode the movie's soundtrack in a lossless audio format. Instead, all we get is standard Dolby Digital 5.1. Worse, the track doesn't even live up to the standards possible on Blu-ray, which allows up to a 640 kb/s bit rate for Dolby Digital. This one is limited to the DVD rate of 448 kb/s. It appears that Vivendi has simply taken the DVD soundtrack (possibly from the Japanese DVD set) and ported it directly to the Blu-ray, rather than authoring the disc from the original audio masters as they should have. This is frankly inexcusable this far into the Blu-ray era.
Don't be fooled into thinking that the soundtracks for either portion of 'Grindhouse' were ever meant to sound degraded the way that the video looks. Other than a few pops and crackles for effect, both features have modern, energetic 5.1 sound mixes that belie their supposed low-budget grindhouse origins. 'Planet Terror' is filled with immersive gunfights, huge explosions, and throbbing bass throughout. 'Death Proof' is a lot talkier, but certainly roars to life with the car chases at the end.
To be fair, the DD 5.1 track isn't unlistenable by any means. It sounds "okay." It still has plenty of rumbly bass and aggressive surround activity. However, it lacks the crispness and clarity of the lossless tracks on the earlier Blu-rays. Dialogue is a little flat. High-end music and sound effects sound muddy. Once you settle in with the movie, it's possible to come to terms with these deficiencies and just go along for the ride. But this is a huge disappointment all the same.
The following bonus features are carried over from the earlier separate Blu-ray editions.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The following features are new to the 'Grindhouse' 2-disc set.
Disc 2 is also BD-Live enabled. At the time of this writing, the only content available online is a photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills from 'Thanksgiving'. A section of the menu also claims that audience reaction tracks for 'Death Proof' and the trailers, plus some 'Death Proof' deleted scenes and a gag reel are "Coming Soon."
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
As mentioned earlier, the "Scratch-Free" version of 'Planet Terror' has not been included with the new 'Grindhouse' Blu-ray. For some reason, the international trailers for both 'Planet Terror' and 'Death Proof' are also missing.
The Japanese DVD set included some additional interviews with Tarantino and Rodriguez that have not been provided here either.
Fans have had to wait a needlessly long time for 'Grindhouse' to finally be released to home video in its original (superior) theatrical cut form, as a double-bill the way it was meant to be experienced. The Blu-ray edition delivers on the picture quality and bonus features, but unfortunately drops the ball when it comes to audio. Even so, the 2-disc set is a great package overall, and comes recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.