Extended and Unrated
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
A tribute to a period in the late 60s when cheapo double feature horror pictures ruled the drive-ins, “Planet Terror” centers on a group of dysfunctional heroes fighting flesh hungry zombies and an Army unit in bad need of a furlough. “Planet Terror” was originally part of a double feature, coupled with Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” which starred Kurt Russell as a hot rod driving psycho with an auto erotic penchant for murdering beautiful women. Even with blood letting editing the two films proved to be too much of a time commitment for movie goers, so when it came time for the DVD releases the Siamese grindhouse flicks were separated. Although “Death Proof” sports the better lead actor in the ageless Russell, thanks to a hardened heroine with a machine gun for a leg, former glamour boy Jeff Fahey going against type, a typically reticent Bruce Willis, the Crazy Babysitter Twins and vats of fake blood, “Planet Terror” is a good old fashioned squirm-in-your-seat screamer.
“Planet Terror” is preceded by a trailer for “Machete,” an action film spoof starring heavily tattooed Hispanic bad boy Danny Trejo as the movie’s main character. Next to hard-bodied William Smith and cock-eyed Jack Elam, Trejo, a genuine tough hombre who did hard time, is one of the most instantly recognizable of screen villains. He plays an assassin hired to take out a senator J.F.K. style, but is set up to take the fall. Aided by a gun toting priest (an unforgiving Cheech Marin), Machete sets out to avenge himself against the men who set him up. Even though it’s a fake five minute vignette from a make believe movie, there’s loads of action, and it has the look of one of those shoestring action movies in the 70s that Smith made a career out of.
“Planet Terror” begins with a seductive but teary pole dance by go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan). Cherry is like a Peanut M &M, hardened on outside but sweet and mushy within. She’s weary of her life as a dancer and quits to persue her dream of being a stand up comic (even though everybody says she’s not funny). Walking down a desolate dirt road, she’s almost run down by a convoy of army vehicles led by scientist Abby (debonair Naveen Andrews) and Lt. Muldoon (a typically dour Bruce Willis). The convoy meets up with a dealer of DC-2, a deadly poisonous gas that Muldoon and his men crave. In the ensuing shootout for control of the gas, Abby purposely shoots one of the canisters, causing the dealer and his men to melt like government cheese. The deadly gas slowly wafts into the air… toward the unsuspecting inhabitants of the nearby backwater town...
Meanwhile, Dr. William Block (gruff Josh Brolin) is convinced his wife, Anesthesiologist Dakota (Heather Graham look-alike Marley Shelton) is cheating on him with another man. He’s partially right. Dakota’s cheating, but it’s with Tammy (curvy rapper Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, who cleans up real good). The Block’s go to work at the local hospital, where Dr. Bill treats an old friend (Nicky Katt, who plays the unsuspecting rube Joe). Joe’s arm is infected with a virus that’s threatening to consume his entire body, so Dr. Bill, not exactly dealing from his best bedside manner, coolly and quickly decides it has to be amputated. Meanwhile (there are a lot of meanwhile’s in this film), Cherry is offered a ride out of town by Wray (a morose Freddie Rodriguez), the tow truck driver she deserted. Meanwhile, Tammy’s car breaks down not once, but twice. The first time she’s helped out by restaurant owner J.T (a surprisingly scruffy Jeff Fahey), who interrupts his quest for the perfect Barbeque sauce to give her water for her car’s overheating engine. The second time Tammy’s car gives out she’s – surprise! – on a foggy, desolate stretch of highway. You’ll be screaming at the screen, “Get outta there, girl!” (How come the sex pots are always the first to go?) Passing drivers ignore Tammy (impossible in itself, considering how she’s attired), and suddenly Tammy is swept off the road and torn to pieces by a band of foaming zombies. Wray and Cherry witness the killing, but Wray is convinced it’s some of the local inbreds carrying off some road kill. As he warns Cherry to never swerve away from a deer “Because turning away can kill you,” he jerks the wheel to avoid hitting something in the road, rolling his truck. Cherry is pulled from the wreck by the zombies. By the time Wray catches up to her, Cherry’s leg is the main course in a zombie buffet.
Wray takes Cherry to the hospital, where he’s taken in custody by Sheriff Hague (authoritative but frequently wrong Michael Biehn), who’s always had it in for Wray and is locked in a blood feud with his brother, J.T., over his barbecue sauce. Back at the hospital, Dr. Joe and his staff have begun receiving dozens of infected bodies that seem to have died then gotten up and walked away. Tallying the dead gets in the way of Dr. Bill’s plans to kill Dakota, whom he immobilizes with her own needles and locks in a closet until break time. Dr. Bill goes back to check on old pal Joe, who’s killed the doctor who was about to severe his arm. A puss-squirting, full on infected Joe tries to cut Dr. Joe in half with an electric saw. Foiled when he pulls the saw too far away from the wall, Joe slimes Dr. Joe, and the germophobic physician immediately knows he’s about to develop a taste for flesh.
Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (laconic but experienced Michael Parks) is assaulted by his invalid wife, who’s died while he was feeding her, and down the road apiece the zombies are on a full press assault against the police station. Dakota escapes the hospital, determined to rescue her son (Beatle-haired non entity Rebel Rodriguez) who’s being watched by the feisty Crazy Babysitter Twins (Venezuelan knockouts Electra and Elise Avellan). Wray, Hague and his men fight their way to the hospital, where Wray rescues a self-pitying Cherry. Attaching a table leg to her stump so she can walk, the group makes its escape to JT’s.
Bloodied, bruised and with a broken wrist, Dakota demolition derby’s her way to her house where she picks up her son from the Crazy Babysitter Twins, who are none to happy about having their social calendar delayed and take their aggressions out on Dakota’s car. Escaping the bat wielding twins, Dakota speeds to her father -- Earl McGraw. Leaving her son alone in the car with instructions to shoot anyone – (“Even daddy?” the boy asks. “Especially daddy,” Dakota replies as she departs). Children and guns frequently equal tragedy and a surprising plot twist involving Dakota’s son alters any future mother-son picnic plans. Making her way to the house, Dakota encounters Dr. Joe, who’s infected, irrational and still a bit miffed about her infidelity.
The action shifts to J.T.’s, where Hague is wounded, the Crazy Baby Sitter Twins have shown up with other uninfected townspeople and J.T.’s restaurant is on fire. But all is not lost! Hague now knows who Wray is…he’s the legendary El Wray! who may be a government operative and apparently never misses anything he shoots at. The survivors stage a heroic getaway from the hordes of zombies, who blow up real good when El Wray and the Crazy Baby Sitter Twins start taking target practice. But their path to freedom is blocked at a bridge by a group of zombies with “gotcha” in their eyes, and our blood spattered heroes are out of bullets…Will the intrepid group of misfits be eaten alive? And how are Abby and Lt. Muldoon involved? Needless to say, “Planet Terror” has a lot more to offer, including Cherry’s stub being fitted with a death-dealing machine gun, the appearance of yet another psychotic villain infected by the DC-2 gas, some surprising and even touching death scenes, and enough goo, gore and exploding zombies to make the Crazy Baby Sitter Twins – and you – hoot and holler for the good guys.
The film is shot like the grindhouse films of the late 60s and early 70s. (Films that were shot so quickly during this period were “ground out” – and the theaters that showed them became “grindhouses.” Subtle, eh?) The film is treated in spots to look grainy, and during one of the most crucial moments the film skips, and a vital scene is cut out. When it gets back on track, one of the characters is mortally wounded and there’s no explanation as to how he got that way, or what happened to put the heroes in even more jeopardy than before. When Cherry and Wray renew old acquaintances and start rutting up the screen, the film begins to jump, crackle and burn and is followed by the dreaded “scene missing” – just like it in the old days when an “accident” seemed more like the theater was censoring something middle American might deem too explicit.
The acting is exceptional and keeps “Planet Terror” from drowning in buckets of Heinz ketchup and pig guts. (Okay, maybe they used Hunt’s ketchup and Perdue parts.) Rose McGowan is Cherry (in more ways than one). She has the ruddy, dangerous look of a hard luck stripper. Slap a tattoo on her back and she could headline at a biker bar. If you like trading barbs -- and possibly punches -- she’s your girl. Director Robert Rodriguez says he based Cherry on McGowan’s tough but disarmingly caustic personality, and he ought to know – they became an item during and after the film. Marley Shelton, the film’s other female lead, navigates the role of put upon cheating spouse/protective mother/emerging heroine with pluck. Thanks to what she refers to as her “flexible wrists,” Shelton successfully coveys the helplessness of someone forced to come up big in a stressful situation. Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson was originally an actress before she became rapper window dressing, and displays considerable ease playing Dakota’s tough, but doomed lover. She has the life span of a security guard on “Star Trek” – a few foreboding scenes foreshadowing danger, some stalking, and it’s bye, bye Fergie. The camera loves Fergie (and so do I), so her quick but necessary exit was a momentary let down – then again by the time the film ends, a lot of characters you didn’t think would die literally end up in pieces.
Lead Freddie Rodriguez is a great actor – witness his work on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” – but he’s too scrawny for the role of hero and has to compensate by grunting and brooding. It’s a nice plot device when his mysterious character is exposed as “El Wray,” which if my Hispanic Bronx buddies were telling me the truth, is a slang term that yields the same degree of respect as calling someone “Hefe.” James Brolin is stone creepy as a jaded, vengeful doctor you’ll be glad doesn’t make house calls; Michael Parks, who once played a motor cycle rebel in his youth (“Then Came Bronson”), has settled well into playing fatherly “aw shucks” experienced icon types; while one time B movie matinee idol Jeff Fahey has embraced his not aging very gracefully and successfully goes against type playing a greasy, grizzled fry cook. Michael Biehn, who gave a definitive performance as cool killer Johnny Ringo in “Tombstone,” takes the role of the disbeliever (with a chip on his shoulder for the hero) to noble heights by adding subtle touches of comedy and irony:
Captain Hague (To Wray, as the zombies attack the police station): Where are you going?
Wray: I’m going to get Cherry.
Captain Hague: Okay, but we’re going in my car.
The Captain’s car explodes in a fiery ball of flame.
Captain Hague: Fine. I’m riding with you.
Naveen Andrews (Sayid on “Lost”) is obviously having blast playing Abby, a scientist with a nauseating collector fetish (Hint: They’re in a jar). He finally gets to play a character using his actual voice, which has the upper crust tone and sophistication of English actor John Hurt. Bruce Wills is stoic, stone faced and quiet. He only has a handful of scenes, and because of his clipped dialogue you forget he’s a pivotal character until he shows up for the climax. But hey, he’s Bruce Willis, and who knew when he was starring as a wise-ass detective on “Moonlighting” he’d turn out to be such a good actor. Twin sisters Electra and Elise Avellan, the crazy baby sitters, are ripe for their roles as blood lusting chatty Chiquitas. They’re abusive, abrasive, argumentative and alluring Salma Hayek’s in training. If this delirious duo doesn’t make it, then there truly is no justice in Tinseltown. Aside from Freddie Rodriguez, the only cast member who deserves a quick exit is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s drooling testosterone-driven character is truly despicable, but that aside, Tarantino should simply leave the acting to actors and stay behind the camera. Caligula, Billy the Kid, and Baby Face Nelson may not have had the hulking physical characteristics of homicidal maniacs, but by all accounts they had the look of a killer in their eyes. Tarantino not only looks like Opie from “The Andy Griffith Show,” he’s more of a ham actor than Porky Pig. As for Danny Trejo, the star of the fake coming attraction “Machete,” the ruddy faced, tough as granite former drug addict and convict is proof that hard core prisoners can be rehabilitated. “Machete” is being made into a full blown theatrical release and Trejo is appearing in fourteen, yes, fourteen films over the next two years.
A second CD offers a graveyard of extras, including “The Badass Babes of Planet Terror,” “The Guys of Planet Terror,” “The Friend, the Doctor and the Real Estate Agent,” and “Casting Rebel,” a featurette highlighting Rodriguez’s selection as Dakota and Dr. Bill’s son.
“The Badass Babes Of Planet Terror” profiles Rose McGowan, Markey Shelton, Fergie and the Crazy Baby Sitter Twins. The Twins are director Robert Rodriguez’s nieces, who are indeed a bit off center, game for just about anything and the type of senoritas you shouldn’t date without ample bail money (certainly for them and maybe for you too). Rodriguez reveals he based part of Cherry’s character on McGowan’s real life desire to be a stand up comic and her list of “useless talents.” One of her useless talents, the ability to bend her back like a suspension bridge, is utilized in the opening dance scene. McGowan uses it a second time to greater affect when she ducks a missile in her explosion happy confrontation with Lt. Muldoon’s men.
“The Guys of Planet Terror” reveals that unlike the ladies, the male actors played characters that were diametrically opposed to their real personalities. James Brolin admits he found it a challenge to abuse Shelton because the two of them really liked each other, while Tom Savini, who played a self-assured vampire killer in “Dusk Till Dawn”, was challenged by the character of Deputy Tolo, an almost hapless screw up.
The most amusing featurette is “The Friend, the Doctor and the Real Estate Agent,” which focuses on three of the non-actors given supporting roles in the movie. Rodriguez literally hired a friend, his doctor (who brought along the gruesome slides you see in the emergency room), and “Skip” Reissig, who plays the strip club owner from Texas who speaks in the same incomprehensible tongue as Boomhauer from “King of the Hill.”
You might entertain becoming a vegetarian after watching “Planet Terror” (nah). You’ll need an open mind and an empty stomach when you watch “Planet Terror,” but most of all, you’ll need a smock. On the downside, you’ll find yourself checking the ingredients of your barbecue sauce more often. On the plus side, you’ll definitely entertain the notion of dating twins.