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“Machete” Primer: “Grindhouse: Planet Terror”

"Machete" Primer: "Grindhouse: Planet Terror"

I’ve finished the second half of my self-assigned task to see the two “Grindhouse” features before seeing “Machete.” You can go back and read my thoughts on Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” which is the preferred part for many film buffs. I have to admit, though, that in many ways Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is more satisfying. It doesn’t seem to have as much subtext going on, but there’s a whole heck of a lot more happening on the screen here than in Tarantino’s feature. As someone who’s only liked one of Rodriguez’s films in the past — “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” — I’ll say I don’t mind his films being mindless if they’re a good mix of cool, crazy, silly and sensational. “Planet Terror” has all of that with only a bare hint of some kind of political context, as most zombie movies can’t not have.

Here is my favorite explanation for the difference between the two “Grindhouse” films, from someone at LAist who seems to like the Rodriguez a little more than the Tarantino:

The allegory this narrative attempts to convey is obvious: the difference between the male and female orgasms. Planet Terror = Male orgasm: Fast moving, action packed, gooey, and somewhat frightening. Deathproof = Female orgasm: Slow going, too much dialogue, lots of build up with a phenomenal ending.

On its own, “Planet Terror” doesn’t have much of any kind of allegory to speak of. There’s just a straightforward, ’80s throwback plot in which a military science project is unleashed upon the population and zombies run amok eating people’s brains “to gain their knowledge,” as James Brolin’s infected doctor says. The film itself is like a feast on Rodriguez’s brain for the audience, as we gain his knowledge, or at least see he likes, of old B-movies, yet even there he’s not as full of allusions as a Tarantino movie. Unless I just get less of his references (I admit I’m aurally challenged enough to not have noticed the “Escape from New York” score popping up occasionally). He doesn’t even cast as much for actors with added relevance the way Tarantino does. Michael Biehn’s appearance here is likely the closest thing.

So what’s that tiny bit of allegory that “Planet Terror” does have? As a zombie movie it must have something. Racism, consumerism, capitalism, complacency and torpidity have all been dealt with metaphorically in zombie movies, which traditionally work for satires of society. What does this have? Something regarding the health care industry? Viral contagion? Texas BBQ? In an interview with IGN, Naveen Andrews thanked god there is no political context even though Osama Bin Laden is mentioned at one point. He calls Rodriguez a child, in a good way, as a reason for the lack of allegory in his movies.

But Andrews does indirectly make me think that the violence in “Planet Terror” is like the actual violence of war, which is rarely thought of on-hand as political. It ends being about survival. In the movie, it doesn’t matter what the zombies stand for or stand-in as, it’s just important to kill them before they kill you. And gain your knowledge (like interrogation! eh, no). You could say “Planet Terror” is a metaphor for the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan or the War on Terror overall. There is that word in the title, after all. It’s worth noting, though, that in an interview with UGO that Tarantino was also a part of, Rodriguez didn’t answer a question about metaphors in either “Grindhouse” feature. I think he was just having mindless fun again.

Do you have any thoughts on the entertainment value or theories on a layer I’m missing with “Planet Terror”? Drop me a comment.

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