In a way, you can look at Robert Rodriguez’s filmography up to Planet Terror (2007) as a director struggling with a fundamental question: How does one make wholly absurd, over-the-top, violent action movies and get away with having zero foundation in credulity and reality? He had sort of answered that question to an extent just by giving into the freedom of making a children’s adventure flick — where absurdity is expected and more freely allowed — with his Spy Kids franchise. But within the scope of his adult films, where sex and blood and gore often crop up, there’s often a certain amount of believability expected.
The more realistic a world your film inhabits, the more realism the audience looks for (if you want an example, just look at how picky some were in regard to plotholes in the relatively realistic Dark Knight Rises as compared to the more fantasticated Avengers, a movie that makes just as little sense). You can see Rodriguez flirt with ludicrous camp (there’s always been a corny side to Rodriguez) in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and the wonderfully harebrained Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). By making a gimmicky, faux-exploitation horror film in Planet Terror that lived inside a ludicrous universe, Rodriguez was finally able to free himself of plausibility and just make a movie that’s pure, gross, unadulterated fun.
Originally packaged as a part of the lovingly postmodern, nostalgic Grindhouse double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof — along with fake exploitation trailers from filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie — Planet Terror is the work of a filmmaker I’ve enjoyed for years but now at the top of his game. He’s a director that’s gone on record saying he just wants to make neat movies, and this one is no different. The fact that Grindhouse bombed (audiences just quite couldn’t grasp the idea of a double feature) is a pity. Using the framework of what’s basically a military-induced zombie invasion in the middle of Texas, Rodriguez uses a lot of calling cards of ‘70s grindhouse cinema — lots of blood, guts and bare flesh — to make the ultimate grindhouse movie. More than a movie, he makes it an experience, willfully scuffing the print and cutting frames — and entire “scenes” — from the film to give the whole thing a rundown, beat-up feel. Yeah, it’s gimmicky, but it’s a glorious gimmick.
What keeps the movie from simply being nothing more than a clever artifice is an aspect of Rodriguez’s talents that is often overlooked — his writing. Here is a script filled with clever dialogue, where every character is fleshed out with ingenious quirks, while seemingly disparate plot points are never left hanging. The entire story runs with clockwork-like precision. Rodriguez’s ability to write a gag is often underappreciated, and the fact that he’s allowed to run wild helps since Planet Terror wallows in ridiculously enjoyable schlock, merging occasionally into black humor. We are, after all, talking about a movie featuring Rose McGowan as a stripper with a prosthetic leg/machine gun, and where we see Quentin Tarantino’s genitals melt off while an all-female cover of the Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck” plays in the background. It’s still one of the purely “funnest” moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, and if Rodriguez hasn’t quite lived up to this film since is only because it’s a hard act to follow.